Once the stuff of science fiction, handheld chemical labs are now fast becoming a reality. Advancements in opto-electronics performance and miniaturization are opening possibilities for the well-established science of material analysis using wavelength dispersion. Imaginative scientists, researchers and engineers are laser-focused on advancing the technology and exploring a wide swath of uses, everything from the fields of psychiatry and medicine to agriculture, industrial and consumer protection.


The technology behind the portable chemical analysis is called near-infrared spectroscopy, or NIRS. NIRS shoots beams of light into objects and then discerns chemical makeup by tracking which photons bounce back. A handheld sensor-to-cloud NIRS device trumps traditional chemical lab analysis because it is quick, portable, inexpensive and non-destructive.

What would you unearth with the power of an instant chemlab in your pocket? Who might benefit? What are the business opportunities?

There are many challenges to overcome before all the possibilities of spectroscopy can be realized, including widening the spectrum used for analysis and boosting the power and sophistication to detect and measure more and more compounds in lower concentrations and ever more challenging conditions.

Analog Devices, with its expertise in precisely measuring physical phenomena, is hard at work turning the vision of NIRS into a reality.

Through the Analog Garage, Analog Devices is making connections at the leading edge in fields like healthcare, agriculture, chemistry, and biology to help ensure that engineering development is aligned with what researchers are trying to achieve with the technology. It’s one of the big reasons, for example, that the Analog Garage is a founding partner of Pulse@MassChallenge, an incubator focused on digital health. 

There is so much possibility and so much activity in NIRS that it can be difficult to keep up. Researchers at Keio University in Tokyo, for example, just reported that they identified a specific channel in the brain in which the presence of oxygenated hemoglobin varies with dosage levels of antidepressants. The discovery could lead to new and better treatments for depression.

And researchers in China are dialing in the best method for assessing leaf nitrogen in pear orchards, something that is urgently needed to improve quality and yields. Of course, Analog Devices’ own Internet of Tomatoes project is leveraging NIRS to help farmers grow better-tasting tomatoes.

To be sure, applications for spectroscopy are sprouting. Consider that:

  • NASA says the Mars 2020 rover will be armed with SuperCam, a device equipped with three different spectroscopy technologies to give it broader capabilities to analyze the elements.
  • The beverage industry is exploring different ways to apply ultraviolet and visible light spectroscopy to make beverages look and taste better. Brewers, for example, are beginning to leverage the technology to manage the bitterness of IPA beers.
  • In India, where an estimated two-thirds of people drink adulterated milk, researchers are putting NIRS to work spotting unwanted contaminants – including additives like urea and antibiotics and lead from paint chips.

One day, consumers will have in their pocket, likely built right into their smartphones - like the Changhong H2 – the ability to quickly assess alcohol content of a drink or detect the presence of a date-rape drug, assess dosage levels in generic drugs, gluten and sugar levels in foods and much more.

Indeed, the possibilities are seemingly endless for NIRS. And the Analog Garage is at the center, helping to connect entrepreneurs with ideas for how to apply it with leading-edge technology from Analog Devices.

Do you have ideas for how to apply NIRS to a real-world problem? Heard of any interesting applications? Share your comments below!