Reading this on a smartphone? If so, you’re but a paper test strip away from having your very own pocket science lab.
Thanks to research led by La Trobe’s Associate Professor Dr Conor Hogan, ordinary smartphones can now be easily transformed into portable biosensor laboratories. By combining a smartphone’s microphone jack, camera and audio functions with a disposable paper strip and an app to perform chemical measurements, Dr Hogan’s lab lets you test any liquid you like.
With the number of smartphone users forecast to grow to almost 3 billion by 2020, citizen science has never been more accessible. Here’s four essential ways a smartphone lab could help you thrive in a brave new world.
1. Finding safe water in a changing climate
No matter where you live, having a safe water supply is vital. The World Health Organisation predicts that half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas by 2025. With climate change, population growth and urbanisation already causing fluctuations in water availability and quality, being able to simply and cheaply monitor water quality near where you live will be essential.
“It’s really important to be able to measure levels of toxic chemicals in water,” says Dr Hogan.
“And that would be normally done by an analytical chemist in a laboratory, using an instrument called a potentiostat, which can vary in price from a few thousand dollars to $20,000.”
A smartphone lab brings the costs of these tests down to a few cents, and gives you the ability to measure molecules in your own water sources. With a simple test, you’ll know if your tap water is okay to drink, whether your fish is from a contaminated river and if you can safely swim in your local lake. And by collaborating with others, you could potentially monitor an entire watershed.
2. Controlling and personalising your health care
Sick of waiting for busy doctors? A smartphone lab can analyse urine, blood, saliva and more, so you can put your health back into your own hands.
According to medical futurists, health care of the future will be personalised and preventative. You’ll do your own medical check-ups and test your own biomarkers using blood and body fluids. And your health data will be sent straight to the cloud, so medical systems can suggest medicine and disease prevention techniques that are tailored completely to you.
3. Diagnosing disease when you’re somewhere remote
When you’re travelling, it can be tricky to know if your achy joints are a symptom of sightseeing or something more serious. With any luck a hot bath and an early night will fix the problem. But what if you’re far from modern hospitals and the symptoms don’t go away?
When you’re in a remote part of the world, rapid diagnosis of diseases and blood infections can be a matter of life and death. A smartphone lab can quickly tell you whether you have cholera, malaria, Ebola or sepsis – and significantly increase your chance of survival. You’ll be able treat the right pathogen and avoid taking the wrong antibiotics. And in the case of infectious diseases, you’ll help reduce the risk of transmission.
4. Enriching the food you eat
By 2050, the world will need to feed 9 billion people. Tackling this food conundrum means being more efficient about what we grow, where we grow it and how we grow it. Luckily, a smartphone lab can take you from playing Fruit Ninja to being an expert food consumer and producer.
With a smartphone lab, you can perform diagnostic tests to prevent the outbreak of disease in livestock and food crops, and help improve a farm’s productivity. You can also check the food you’re eating for contaminants like antibiotics, toxic metals, fungicides and pesticides. As agriculture and animal production intensifies to meet increasing demands for food, your pocket-sized lab will help keep you at the top of the food chain.
Maybe being addicted to your smartphone isn’t entirely bad? With a portable lab in your pocket, you can now find safe water, control your health, diagnose diseases on the spot, and make sure your food is flourishing.
Have a game-changing technology hack in mind? Consider a course in Science at La Trobe University.