In every group of friends, there is one member who is pickier than the rest. This person will often only drink certain brands of coffee and alcohols and seems to have “more expensive” taste than the rest. Some of us may label this person as a snob, but they usually prefer the term connoisseur.
There is some basis for their argument, in fact, particularly when it comes to alcohol. The answer to this mystery is actually chemistry. These connoisseurs can detect the array of chemical components that make up different types and brands of alcohol. Others may not be able to detect them as easily.
In an attempt to mimic this ability, some researchers have developed what is being called an electronic nose. Inspired by the structure and function of animal noses, these electronic noses detect and produce electronic “fingerprints” of the chemical structure of different smells. Unfortunately, these noses are limited in their detection ability, only picking up on weakly binding chemicals within scents.
A new team of researchers from the University of Illinois worked to develop an alternative to these electronic noses. Their solution comes in the form of a colorimetric strip, similar to the ones you would use the test the pH levels in your pool. These strips are inexpensive and can be used in conjunction with a handheld device to read complex compounds.
The strips contain chemically reactive dyes that change color as they come into contact with different chemicals. “Different analyte molecules bind to the individual reagent areas with different degrees of strength, causing the reagents to change color. The result is a characteristic pattern of color changes that can be detected and analyzed by common pattern recognition techniques with a hand-held device.”
Similar to the way a wine or whiskey connoisseur is able to detect the subtle undertones that make certain alcohols better than others, the colorimetric strips are able to determine which chemical components are included in the drink. In this way, the strips can decipher between types of alcohol and even between brands based on what chemicals are found in the drink.
These strips have the potential to revolutionize the quality control aspect of serving food and drinks. The developers actually created a line of sensors specifically for spirits. Including different compounds such as carboxylic acids, sulfides, amines, and polyphenols, the strips can detect the broad flavors that make up the different types of spirits. For your connoisseur friend, this could mean guaranteeing the quality of every beverage they are served.
In the medical world, these strips could potentially be specialized to detect different substances in foods and drinks that people have intolerances for. The uses could range from diabetic patients to those with gluten and other intolerances. Being able to easily detect unwanted substances in food or drink would allow these people to eat and drink in comfort.