Making Science Simple

Public Lab helps contribute to science through innovative but simple ‘DIY’ projects.

Building upon the ‘backyard science’ philosophy, a group of inventors have constructed a research tool comparable to it’s costly equavalent.

A spectrometer is a ubiquitous tool for scientists to identify unknown materials, like oil spill residue or coal tar in urban waterways. But they cost thousands of dollars and are hard to use — so the team at Public Lab designed one from everyday materials, turning us all into scientists.

The open hardware kit costs $35, but has a range of more than 400-900 nanometers, and a resolution of as high as 3 nm. A spectrometer is essentially a tool to measure the colors absorbed by a material. You can construct this one yourself from a piece of a DVD-R, black paper, a VHS box, and an HD USB webcam.

They’ve also created open source software to collect, analyze, compare, and share calibrated spectral data and made an experimental version which converts your cellphone into a spectrometer.

Public Lab community members have used this new tool to identify dyes in “free and clear” laundry detergent, to test grow lamps, and to analyze wines.

Now they need your help in collecting data to build a Wikipedia-style library of open source spectra, and to refine and improve sample collection and analysis techniques. Imagine a kind of “SHAZAM for materials” which can help to investigate chemical spills, diagnose crop diseases, identify contaminants in household products, and even analyze olive oil, coffee, and homebrew beer.

Public Lab is an open community which investigates environmental issues with DIY tools. You might have heard about their first big project to document the BP oil spill using aerial photos from kites and balloons with their balloon mapping kits on Kickstarter. Since then they’ve been working on new ways to ID contamination on the cheap.

Simple Science, engages everyone – making affordable the tools to conduct our own research, learn more about the world around us and contribute to a collective resource that could lead to future insights or innovations with benefits to us all.

Checkout Public Lab DIY Spectrometry Kit on Kickstarter and help support the growth of Simple Science!

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Inga Yandell
Explorer and photo-journalist, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide educational resources and a platform for science exploration.
Inga Yandell

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