Emergency beacon based on atomic emission

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  • Published: Sep 18, 2013
  • Author: Steve Down
  • Channels: Infrared Spectroscopy / UV/Vis Spectroscopy / NMR Knowledge Base / X-ray Spectrometry / Chemometrics & Informatics / Base Peak / MRI Spectroscopy / Atomic / Proteomics / Raman

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An emergency beacon can send simple messages using the atomic emission of alkali metals embedded in a cotton string that is set alight with methanol. This simple device has been designed by US scientists as a simple and inexpensive way to transmit information over long distances through the air and would be suitable for countries with limited resources. It is the latest development in a new field of science dubbed infochemistry and is described in Analytical Chemistry.

When a cotton string is doped with a mixture of metals then burned with methanol, the signals can be seen over 1 km away for up to 10 minutes, allowing them to be detected and analysed. By adjusting the concentrations of three metals (K, Rb and Cs) to high, low and zero, different signal patterns are created and each pattern can correspond to a preset message, such as "Send doctor." The research team envisages one field of operation to be search-and-rescue, where more information can be added to a distress signal.

A total of 26 combinations of the three metal concentrations is possible. However, only 19 were used because those without any "high" concentrations were rejected to prevent confusion if they are measured at different distances. For instance, high levels of all three metals measured at long distances could be mistaken for low levels of them all if measured at a short distance. The detector is a purpose-built telescope containing collection optics, bandpass filters and photodiodes for measuring signal strengths of all three metals.

This atomic emission beacon is simple to operate. The signals can be made up from pre-prepared solutions corresponding to a simple code book. When the beacon is lit, just 15 mL of methanol will keep the flame going for 10 minutes and it can be viewed from any direction. If the number of metals is increased to six by adding, say, Na, Li and Ca, the number of combinations increases to 655.

The current system is not infallible, being susceptible to adverse weather conditions, but a simple housing could protect the flame against wind and rain.

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