(Popular Mechanics) We use them to spy on exoplanets, diagnose skin-cancer, and ID the makeup of unknown chemicals. They're on NASA spacecraft flying around Saturn's moons right now. Yes, right alongside the microscope, the optical spectrometer—an instrument that breaks down the light that something reflects or emits, telling you what its made of—is one of the most ubiquitous tools in all of science. Today, Jie Bao, a physicist at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, has just discovered a fascinating way to make them smaller, lighter, and less expensive than we ever thought possible.
By using tiny amounts of strange, light-sensitive inks, Bao and his colleague Moungi Bawendi—a chemist at MIT—have designed a working spectrometer that's small enough to fit on your smartphone. Because of the tool's simple design and its need for only an incredibly small amount of the inks, Bao says, his spectrometer only requires a few dollars worth of materials to make. They report the research today in the journal Nature.