Scientists have developed a portable device with advanced sensors that can accurately identify fake or watered-down alcohol, offering a strategy for liquor quality assurance. Watered-down or fake liquors can reap financial rewards for nefarious individuals, but the adulteration of liquor cheats consumers and can even lead to health hazards from added contaminants.

In the past few years, deaths from contaminated alcohol have been reported in Indonesia, Mexico, China, Poland and Russia, among other places. Unscrupulous individuals hoping to make a profit may homebrew liquor and bottle it in official-looking packaging or dilute liquor with anything from water to antifreeze.

Kenneth S Suslick and Zheng Li from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the US wanted to address this growing health concern by engineering a device that can easily identify tainted products. The researchers developed a disposable sensor with 36 dyes that change colour upon exposure to particular components in liquor. Partial oxidation of the liquor vapours improved the sensor’s response.

Using a handheld image analyser to detect these colour changes, the scientists correctly identified the alcoholic content and brand of 14 different liquors, including various scotch whiskey, bourbon, rye, brandy and vodka with greater than 99 percent accuracy. In an experiment to demonstrate a real-world application, the researchers also sniffed out booze that had been watered down, even by as little as one per cent.

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