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A nerve gas detector made of Legos and an iPhone

Engineers have designed a cheap and simple prototype nerve gas detector using both Legos and an iPhone.

The rig features a sliding plate of upside-down Legos with rows of small holes that can be filled with nerve agent samples, which are then placed in a chemical cocktail. The chemicals will change color and fluoresce with even the smallest amount of a nerve agent in the sample.

“Unfortunately, it can be difficult to see differences in the level of fluorescence with the naked eye in the field,” said Xiaolong Sun, a post-doctoral research fellow who helped develop the device’s sensors. The Lego box operates as a portable darkroom with a UV light to activate the chemical fluorescence. Once the light is turned on, an iPhone placed on top of the box is able to take photos of the sample through a small hole drilled through the Legos.

A photo of the sample can then be sent by text or email to someone at a lab with a computer to identify the type of nerve agent and how much of an agent there is with a color scale and software developed by graduate student Alexander Boulgakov.

What is clever about this is its simplicity. If only more engineers on government projects would think like this.

Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit. And if you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.


  • Localfluff

    Reminds me of the guy “on Youtube” who covered his phone camera with tin foil and wrote a little code to count the number of pixels that lit up. Only hard radiation gets through the aluminium. Demonstrated it by putting it close to some radioactive material he had. A cheap Geiger counter. Not very accurate but if it is dangerous it would tell.

  • commodude

    M-256 kit, which the Army has had for ages. They detect nerve agent without needing a lab.

  • commodude: What is the cost for the M-256 kit? The article implies that the present existing equipment available costs $30,000, though it is also very unclear about what exactly that $30,000 is for.

  • commodude

    An M-256 kit, which identifies agents once detected by an M-8 detector, CAM or other more unfortunately direct means, costs about $150 per kit. Every soldier is trained on using them as part of Common Task Training, or whatever the puzzle palace is calling basic soldier skills these days. They’re simple, rugged, and easy to use.

    Simple and cheap seems to be forgotten traits in engineering, particularly on the government dime.

  • commodude: I then wonder who the Lego/iPhone nerve detector is being developed for, and why.

  • commodude

    Possibly for municipal entities who wouldn’t have access to military equipment for deployment to areas such as subway tunnels.

  • Mitch S.

    Perhaps the “lego” kit is more sensitive and can distinguish between t=different types of nerve agent.
    But the article implies it’s only for nerve agents while the M-256 can identify other toxins (such as mustard gas).
    Does seem the M-256 is available to pretty much anyone:

    It strikes me that the lego kit requires the pic to be sent out to be analyzed on a computer.
    Surprised they couldn’t do it on board the phone (maybe that’s coming)
    Smartphones are powerful computers that allow portable low-cost functions that once cost thousands in stand alone units.
    For example:

  • pzatchok

    The m-256 kit covers a very narrow range of agents.
    The most common ones. But not the deadliest.

    The real tech is in the detector cards and how they react under UV light.

    They could put the same cards inside a shoe box and use a small UV sterilizer pen for the light source. Then any phone with a camera can be used as the photo detector.

    Each kit could have a collapsed/expandable box with a several detector cards, a UV sterilizer pen, and a photo/camera calibration card. Download the app and calibrate the phone. Put in the detector card and have the test results in minutes.

    The real cost is in the cards.

  • commdude

    The 256 kit detects what it does because it was designed ages ago, when the agents in the detector matrix were the most common battlefield agents.

    I’m sure it could be updated to detect more agents, however, given the current DoD trend toward bloat, I’d be hesitant to even propose the project. They’d find some way to mandate wireless networking into the kit just because, and have it update to BFT, and want it integrated into ASAS….

    Simple isn’t in their vocabulary anymore.

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