Purdue University researchers have created a handheld sensing system its creators liken to Star Trek's "tricorder" used to analyze the chemical components of alien worlds. The new portable system is an ultrafast chemical analysis tool that could be used for detecting everything from cancer in the liver to explosives residue on luggage and "biomarkers" in urine that provide an early warning for diseases.

The instrument is a miniature mass spectrometer combined with a technique called desorption electrospray ionization, or DESI. Unlike conventional mass spectrometers, which are cumbersome laboratory instruments that weigh more than 300 pounds, the new handheld device weighs less than 20 pounds and can be used in the field.

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