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Scientists have designed an ultra-miniaturised device that could directly image single cells without the need for a microscope or make chemical fingerprint analysis possible from a smartphone.

The device, made from a single nanowire 1000 times thinner than a human hair, is the smallest spectrometer ever designed. It could be used in potential applications such as assessing the freshness of foods, the quality of drugs, or even identifying counterfeit objects, all from a smartphone camera. Details are reported in the journal Science.

In the 17th century, Isaac Newton, through his observations on the splitting of light by a prism, sowed the seeds for a new field of science studying the interactions between light and matter—spectroscopy. Today, optical spectrometers are essential tools in industry and almost all fields of scientific research. Through analysing the characteristics of light, spectrometers can tell us about the processes within galactic nebulae, millions of away, down to the characteristics of protein molecules.

However, even now, the majority of spectrometers are based around principles similar to what Newton demonstrated with his prism: the spatial separation of light into different spectral components. Such a basis fundamentally limits the size of spectrometers in respect: they are usually bulky and complex, and challenging to shrink to sizes much smaller than a coin. Four hundred years after Newton, University of Cambridge researchers have overcome this challenge

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