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Detecting viruses with your smartphone?

Schematic of three different nano flashlights for the generation of, left to right, focused, wide-spanning, and collimated beams. Each could have different applications. Credit: Robin Singh, and Elizabeth A. Thomson, Materials Research Laboratory, MIT

I still remember my wonder when I discovered I could use my smartphone as a flashlight! Just press the display on the flashlight icon and I could look at a flower during the darkest night (or, less romantically, search for lost keys under the couch…).

Now my smartphone has a LIDAR beam that lets me (actually the smartphone camera) pick up objects and their shape and distance in very low light. What is amazing is that LIDAR used to cost in the tens of  thousands dollars just ten years ago. Now it has been embedded in a chip and its price has tumbled to the point that it can be part of a smartphone. The LIDAR is opening up the possibility to make 3D scanning of a room and an app can reconstruct the shape and content of a room. There are already a number of apps leveraging on it and several more will come.

However this is really nothing! I just saw a news coming from the MIT where a team of researchers have developed a sort of micro spectrometer that could -potentially- end up in a future smartphone. A spectrometer is an instrument that is used to analyse the optical spectrum of a light beam. It is used to identify the composition of a material since different materials reflect wavelengths in different ways, each specific to a given material. Illuminating a material and measuring the “spectrum of the reflected light” one gets a sort of unique signature of that material.

Spectrometer are bulky devices, but the MIT researchers have been able to create a spectrometer on a chip.  The chip can emit very narrow light beams using a variety of wavelengths and can measure the reflected ones, thus identifying the illuminated material. According to the researchers a smartphone embedded that chip would be able to detect viruses!

Notice, however, that there is a big difference between being able to detect a virus and “detecting” it! When you use a nanobeam and you illuminate the virus the smartphone could indeed detect it by analysing the reflected light (each virus has a very specific set of molecules and therefore it can be recognised). However, the probability of illuminating a virus by using a nanobeam is exceedingly small!

Nevertheless, what the researchers have achieved is just amazing and in the coming years we might end up with smartphone that can double up as labs detecting bacteria and viruses. Never say never.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.