Alcoholic beverages tainted with toxic methanol -- used to increase the strength of spirits like moonshine -- can cause blindness and metabolic acidosis, which could lead to death.
It’s pretty insidious because adding methanol doesn't change the drink's flavor, color, or smell. Until now, there’s been no easy way to tell if what you're about to imbibe could poison you. In fact, methanol is a public health concern.
In particular, exposure to the compound is increasing in third world populations -- mainly due to the consumption of illicitly distilled or adulterated alcoholic beverages. ScienceNOW explains:
These dangerous drinks can come from botched batches of home-distilled liquor, but they often have a more sinister origin; criminal gangs will cut standard alcohols with methanol and sell the resulting concoctions to unassuming customers for inflated profits.
Although methanol is naturally present in some alcoholic drinks, the maximum allowed concentration cannot exceed 10 grams per liter.
So a team of researchers from the University of the Andes in Colombia developed a reusable, wireless microsensor that can analyze a drink's proportion of methanol to ethanol (the good kind of alcohol), and then warn consumers of any danger.
This first generation chip (about the size of Lincoln’s head on a penny) costs about $5 and still requires an antenna, but they hope to have a commercial product within two years that can send results directly to a cell phone.
Image by Christopher Herbert via Flickr