Ever since the BP oil spill, the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science has been trying to help amateur researchers explore their communities for evidence of oil contaminants and pollution. The project began with balloon-mapping, a good tool for gathering aerial views of environmental damage. But if you really want persuasive signs of, say, an oil spill, you need a chemical snapshot, not a photographic one.
You need, well, a spectrometer. "It was kind of a surprise to us, a grassroots science community, to realize that when people wanted to identify an unknown substance, there’s this completely ubiquitous device that’s used in almost all branches of the sciences in different ways," says Public Lab research coordinator Jeff Warren, who counts himself among the community’s members without a formal science background. "It really does sound kind of like a Star Trek device."
Spectrometers come in a number of different forms, but all of them perform the same basic function, diffracting light shone through a substance to reveal a kind of color fingerprint that corresponds to its chemical makeup. When the EPA wants to test soil or water samples, it sends them to a spectrometer. If a community group wants to ship a sample to a lab for testing, that goes to a spectrometer, too. Suffice it to say, most of us don’t have one of these things lying around.
And so Public Lab developed one-–something DIY, affordable, that you can order over the Internet (like their balloon-mapping kits). For 35 bucks, maybe you can’t assemble the kind of tool a laboratory scientist might use to identify fine components in a soil sample. But Public Lab was aiming for something that could answer a simpler question: Is that oil in my lagoon?
"It was kind of an article of faith for a while that we should be pursing this and it wasn’t a waste of time," Warren says. But the thing really seemed remarkably simple once the group started researching it. Public Lab found DIY scientists building spectrometers out of toilet paper rolls and pizza boxes. "We thought, well wait a second, are they really that simple to build?" Warren recalls. "I guess in some ways the answer is yes. In some ways the answer is no."
It’s fairly simple to construct something that diffracts light just like a prism does. The trickier part is capturing and recording that data for analysis. The simplest $35 edition Public Lab is now shipping out to its Kickstarter supporters is composed of laughably simple MacGyver-like parts: a $9 web camera and USB cable, a slice of a DVD-R that functions like the prism, some black paper, Velcro, and double-sided tape. Inside the little box, the DVD-R diffracts the light, and the web camera snaps an image of the rainbow-like pattern that emerges from the other side. Picture the album cover to Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. "Literally that’s a diagram of the interior of our spectrometer," Warren laughs. The software Public Lab has been developing to accompany the tool then graphs the results.
Warren and others have been working on churning out nearly a thousand of these kits for people who supported the project earlier this fall on the Kickstarter campaign. But anyone else can pre-order one now for likely some time in February. The non-profit organization is a DIY community, which means you’re expected to spend half an hour or so assembling this spectrometer when it arrives (with instructions). This whole community only works, Warren says, because its members are eager to roll up their own sleeves. Public Lab doesn’t produce consumer electronics. If you order a kit, it will come with a note welcoming you to the citizen-science fold. "We want to make sure you know you’re not just a customer," Warren says. "You’re a collaborator, a contributor."
The hardest part of all of this, Warren says, has not been designing a cheap instrument, but designing a cheap instrument that anyone can learn to use without being overwhelmed by the technology. "We have this balance we’re trying to seek," he says. Want to know exactly how the thing works? "Half of me wants to say ‘don’t worry about it’—the Apple approach. I kind of hate that in some ways, it’s patronizing to me if someone wants to learn and understand things. But you also want to think, once something is abstracted and made easy, then people can simply use it as a tool."
He doesn’t want you to make serious decisions about your safety and health based on the data from a homemade spectrometer. This is an ongoing experiment, one that will evolve as more people join it and improve the tool. If you built your own car from scratch, Warren says, you’d probably want to drive it around a parking lot before speeding onto the highway. But Warren hopes that ultimately you’ll be able it identify metals in your vegetable garden, or signs of oil in a waterway that the EPA should look into. Maybe this just helps your low-budget community group decide where to spend scarce resources sending samples off to a high-tech lab. At any rate, for $35 or $40, it’s probably a good investment.