Modern version of an ancient musical instrument detects poisons

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Also known as the thumb piano, the mbira is an African musical instrument that has been around in one form or another for at least 3,000 years. Now, however, scientists have developed a new version that, when paired with a smartphone, can detect toxic substances and possibly even counterfeit drugs.

A traditional mbira consists of several metal teeth of different sizes, mounted on a wooden soundboard. When one of these teeth is pinched by the user’s thumb, it produces a specific musical note. Different teeth produce different notes depending on their size, although their density also affects their sound.

Led by Dr. William Grover, a team from the University of California, Riverside recently created a mbira that has only one U-shaped hollow tooth. When that tooth contains only air, it produces a G sharp note when plucked. If the tooth is filled with water, however, this note drops to an F sharp.

Although the difference between these two notes is easily audible, the sound frequencies produced by Grover’s mbira are also subtly affected by the density of the fluid inside the tooth. These frequency differences cannot be detected by the human ear, but they can be detected by a free smartphone web application.

In laboratory tests, this app was easily able to distinguish between sounds emitted by similar samples of non-toxic glycerol and toxic diethylene glycol, and it could also distinguish between solutions containing varying concentrations of sodium chloride. sodium. In contrast, when it was used to analyze six samples of cold medicine from different production lots and with different expiration dates, it confirmed that they were all the same legitimate substance.

In field trials, the instrument was also used to measure the fat content of bison milk in India and to indicate the sediment levels of river water in California.

Grover now hopes the device will be used in developing countries, where it could be constructed from scrap materials and be easily used with little training. It can be seen and heard in use, in the following video.

Source: American Chemical Company via EurekAlert

Sensors that are “music to your ears” – Headline Science


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