Soon a smartphone camera will be able to identify an object’s chemical composition from its photo

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Inspired by the fictional “Tricorder” of the Star Trek universe, scientists at the Tel Aviv University are currently developing an advanced smartphone camera that could identify the chemical composition of any object by simply capturing its photograph. Based on the concept of hyperspectral imaging, the technology could soon be available for mass production.

Used mainly for recording, analysing and computing data, the tricorder is an indispensable gizmo in the Star Trek universe. Taking cue from the world of science fiction, a team of researchers, led by Prof. David Mendlovic, has undertaken the task of developing an innovative hyperspectral imaging camera. The process entails scanning of different objects and their corresponding electromagnetic “fingerprints”. By examining the unique signature of each substance, the sensor can effectively identify its chemical composition.

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While such a technology is already available in case of bigger cameras, the team is looking for ways to transform regular smartphones into advanced hyperspectral sensors. To that end, the researchers have combined two different components: a small, yet powerful optical device and a specially-designed image processing software. Mendlovic and his colleagues, along with a group of scientists from the Unispectral Technologies firm, are constructing an intricate optical contraption that could be easily incorporated into conventional smartphone designs. What is more, the device, built using MEMS (or microelectromechanical systems) technology, could also be suitable for bulk production. Mendlovic, a professor of Electrical Engineering at TAU, said:

The optical element acts as a tunable filter and the software — an image fusion library — would support this new component and extract all the relevant information from the image.

Central to the breakthrough is the fact that every object possesses a unique fingerprint, that, under electromagnetic spectrum, exhibits its specific chemical composition. With the help of the image processing software, the camera could then be able to analyze the acquired data, which in this case is the captured image. In order to be able to achieve such an ambitious goal, the technology must be supported by a rather large database, containing the hyperspectral signatures of a wide variety of substances. Mendlovic was reported saying:

A long list of fields stand to gain from this new technology. We predict hyperspectral imaging will play a major role in consumer electronics, the automotive industry, biotechnology, and homeland security.

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According to the team, a working prototype will be available by June. Speaking about the potential applications of the technology, which was recently unveiled at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Ariel Raz, a doctoral research student at TAU, said:

Agricultural applications may also benefit because hyperspectral imaging could be used to identify properties of crops, vegetables, and other types of foods. Its hyperspectral platform is also suitable for wearable devices.

Source: Tel Aviv University

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