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Do-It-Yourself Spectrometer, Lab In The City

by Deirdre Lockwood
November 19, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 47


Credit: Jeffrey Warren
Smartphone spectrometer: Calling up spectra of everyday stuff.
A paper-based kit from PLOTS turns a smartphone into a spectrometer.
Credit: Jeffrey Warren
Smartphone spectrometer: Calling up spectra of everyday stuff.

TV’s MacGyver never needed a spectrometer to save the day. But if he built one, the device would probably look like the one Jeffrey Warren and collaborators at the Public Laboratory for Open Technology & Science (PLOTS) recently designed. The spectrometer is made from a VCR box, a webcam, and part of a recordable DVD—plus some card stock and duct tape thrown in for good measure. Like MacGyver, Warren is hoping the do-it-yourself device will make the world a better place.

In December, PLOTS, an open, collaborative community that is developing open-source tools for environmental study, will be mailing kits for this “video spectrometer” to 1,600 people who each invested $35 to get the project off the ground in a recent online Kickstarter campaign. Those who backed PLOTS at $10 each get a nifty card-paper kit that turns a smartphone into a spectrometer.

Using software that comes with the kits, people can generate absorption spectra of substances such as oil and soil and share them through the PLOTS website ( Warren hopes the combined efforts will build a library of spectra to create an open-access, searchable database of materials.

Warren came up with the idea for the spectrometers in 2010 during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, when he and others launched a grassroots effort to make high-resolution aerial maps of the spill by tying cameras to kites and balloons. Although the photos helped gauge the spill’s extent, Warren also wanted to detect chemical products of the spill—but on the cheap. Trained as an architect, he brushed up on spectroscopy in the libraries of MIT, where he is a media lab fellow. Then he and a dozen other PLOTS members spent two years designing the webcam- and smartphone-based devices.

All the work fueled the growth of PLOTS, whose far-flung members connect through local meetings and a wiki-style website.

Earlier this month, 30 people gathered for a “barn raising” in Louisiana—the closest thing PLOTS has to a national meeting—to discuss the ethics of citizen science and share tips on monitoring pollutants by infrared kite photography and developing do-it-yourself flame emission spectrometers.

So far, the video spectrometer has been used by a few epicures in the group to compare spectra of different olive oils and wines, Warren says. One PLOTS member used it to detect a blueing agent in a laundry detergent advertised as dye-free. And a PLOTS chapter in Brooklyn hopes to use it to monitor the Superfund cleanup of the Gowanus Canal.

Elsewhere in Brooklyn, a band of scientists is bringing biotech to the block with their nonprofit community lab, called Genspace. In 2010, molecular biologists Ellen Jorgensen and Oliver Medvedik opened Genspace with five cofounders to work on projects they thought wouldn’t win support in academia or industry.

Credit: Genspace
Bacterial art: Paint-by-plasmid.
Painting with colorful bacteria.
Credit: Genspace
Bacterial art: Paint-by-plasmid.

But the lab doesn’t just conduct research. It also offers classes, including “Intro to Synthetic Biology,” in which students learn how to splice genes into bacteria to make a biosensor; hosts workshops on how to paint with colorful bacteria; and mentors high school and college students.

In addition to the nearly 200 students who have taken classes at the lab, Genspace has about a dozen members who pay $100 per month for 24/7 access. They include a lawyer who recently took his genetic engineering project to a regional competition, artists who are making bacteria their medium, and scientists trying out new ideas. Medvedik himself is at work on a color-based bacterial biosensor to detect arsenic.

Deirdre Lockwood wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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