It took a hooch tragedy in West Bengal in December 2011, where 140 lives were lost, to set the scientist couple to work. Praveen C. Ashok and Bavishna Balagopal of the University St. Andrews, Scotland had developed a device a couple of years ago to analyse very small amount of bio-fluids.

As a side project, the couple had also done a study in analysing Scotch Whiskey. The study enabled them to investigate and discriminate single malt Scotch whiskies based on brand, age and the cask used. But this time, they were poised to make it big.

“This (the West Bengal tragedy) made us think whether it would be possible for us to use our device to predict toxicity of spirit. This was much more challenging than what we did in our previous study on Scotch whisky, where the aim was to originally quantify the amount of ethanol (alcohol) in spirit,” said Dr. Praveen in an email interview from Scotland.

The basic concept of the study was to analyse the volume of Methanol in the liquor. “Those who make bootleg spirits sometimes deliberately add methanol to it in order to increase the effect of the spirit. However there is a fine line between spirit becoming toxic or non-toxic depending on the concentration of methanol. If methanol concentration in spirit goes above a particular limit, it can cause adverse effects on humans — ranging from blindness to death.”

The accepted European standards is less than 0.4 per cent of methanol in the total volume, which is one-hundredth of the concentration of ethanol that would be typically present in spirits. This made the attempt to quantify the amount of methanol something like “searching for a needle in the haystack”.

The couple used Raman Spectroscopy (discovered by C.V. Raman), which is “so powerful that it allows (researchers) to simultaneously quantify multiple components in a sample. Using this principle, we found that our device is extremely sensitive so that it can quantify very low volume of methanol, along with quantification of Ethanol. This means we would be able to predict whether the methanol concentration in spirit is above or below the allowable limits.”

In other words, the device prepared by Dr. Praveen and Bavishna that can be operated from a small suitcase can arm the law enforcers to check the toxicity of liquor. The credit card-sized chip, which is at the heart of the device, will cost just Rs. 1000 to make. “Also the device is developed in such a way that one does not need any particular technological expertise to use this device. Another important factor is that you only need a teardrop of spirit to perform this analysis.”

On the flip side, the laser and detector that need to work along with the device might put the device beyond the reach of common man at present. “However, technology is evolving so fast that I can see in a few years of time the total price of the equipment getting significantly lowered.”

While it helps the law enforcement agencies to perform on-the-spot analysis of samples, the device will also aid the producers of the spirits. “Sometimes due to accidental contamination during the distillation, the methanol content of the spirit can go higher than the allowable limit. In which case the producers would be able to check the toxicity before it leaves the factory.”

The couple has filed patent application and is in search of industrial partners to commercialise the product.

Dr. Praveen, who hails from Kochi, did his masters in photonics from the Centre of Excellence in Lasers and Optoelectronic Sciences, Cusat in 2008 and joined the Optical Manipulation Group headed by Prof. Kishan Dholakia at University of St Andrews for pursuing his PhD. He is now working as a post doctoral research fellow in the same research group. Bavishna completed her M.Tech in Optoelectronics and Laser Technology from International School of Photonics, Cusat and is now in the final stages of her PhD with Prof. Dholakia’s group. Both Dr. Praveen and Bavishna are mainly working in the research field of biomedical optics. They develop tools using photonics technology to address problems in the field of biology and medicine, and the spirit analysis studies have been a by-product of their research.

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