Even though it was invented in 1953, the breathalyzer still seems like something out of science fiction. Think about it: A stranger can appear at any point during an evening, have you blow into an electronic wand, and then can tell you exactly how much you've had to drink.
You have to be pretty invested in discovering your blood alcohol content to spend a few thousand dollars on an infrared sensor.
Robert F. Borkenstein invented the first blood alcohol detector with Dr. R. N. Harger, which they dubbed the Drunkometer. This led to his 1953 invention of the breathalyzer, the device we know today. When Borkenstein died in 2002, he would have still recognized the devices in use.
In the years since his passing, though, technology has advanced by degrees. From analyzers that fit on a keychain, to "stylish" inserts powered by smartphones, to those that detect other drugs, the concept has seen more than a few changes.
Most of the devices listed below are made and priced for the everyday user, which might not be a terrible thing considering the National Transportation Safety Board's recommendation to lower the legal driving blood alcohol limit from .08 to .05. (grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood).
How Does a Breathalyzer Work?
Breathalyzer is a specific band name that's become commonly used like a generic (like Band-Aid and Xerox) to refer to any number of breath analyzers that detect alcohol (and now drugs) from the breath.
There are three different basic types of breathalyzers, each operating at a different level and targeted at a different market. This differentiation lies in the sensor each uses to detect alcohol in the breath. The cheapest type, which generally appears in the type you might find in a drug store, uses a semi-conductor sensor. More accurate and used in police hand-held devices and high-end consumer ones are those that sense alcohol using fuel cells. Finally, the kind housed in police stations for official readings generally use infrared spectrophotometer technology, which is astoundingly accurate.
You have to pretty invested in discovering your blood alcohol content to spend a few thousand on an infrared sensor, but the first two are available for the common consumer.
Keith Nothacker, CEO of BACtrack, a company that specializes in both semi-conductor and fuel cell breathalyzers as well as the mobile one described below, offered a crash-course on breathalyzers.
"In the deepest part of your lungs there are membranes where there's an interchange between the blood in your blood stream and the air in your lungs," Nothacker said via telephone from California. "When you use an accurate, professional-grade breath alcohol tester, it's actually not measuring your breath sample until the end of the breath." That air, which has been in contact with your blood stream, can carry ethanol (i.e. alcohol) particles, which the sensors then register. This is why the legal-grade breathalyzers make "you feel like you're about to collapse you're blowing for so long."
During the user's final few moments of expulsion, the breathalyzer's sensors began to monitor the air rushing over them. The difference between the semi-conductor and the fuel cell sensor is what each records. "The fuel cell is ethanol-specific, so it's specific only to the alcohol ethanol," says Nothacker. Meanwhile, the semi-conductor sensor is a lot broader. For example, it will register ketones as alcohol, even though ketones are a wide variety of organic compounds with a particular structure. Ketones, which include both sugars and acetone, often appear on the breath of diabetics, which can lead a semi-conductor breath analyzer to mistake a diabetic person for a drunk.
They work slightly differently, too. A basic way of thinking of it is that the semi-conductor is heated at first and then registers any change in resistance to this process. Unfortunately, non-ethanol particles can cause this change in resistance. The fuel cell, meanwhile, works by measuring the current moving across the membrane of the sensors. As ethanol particles hit the membrane, the current changes.
To create more futuristic devices, this technology simply had to be repackaged.
In the Palm of Your Hand
Take the BreathKey, for example. It's a breathalyzer that's about the size of your car fob and fits just as easily on a keychain. Its manufacturer, OmegaPoint Systems, claims it's the smallest breathalyzer on the market.
Ed Gollar, owner of OmegaPoint Systems, began working in the breathalyzer business in 1989. At the time, his work consisted of helping create interlock devices -- the large breathalyzers installed in cars that can prevent said car from starting -- and he thought, "Why not stop the problem before it begins?" So he began creating handheld breathalyzers for the layman. One problem kept popping up, though: they were huge, clunky, and ugly.
"In a professional setting, no one really cares what it looks like or how big it is, so long as it's accurate," Gollar says. But "a [regular] person doesn't want to carry around a big ugly square thing." So he began shrinking them with the end goal of creating one that could fit on a keychain. "A keychain is something people don't have to think about."
To do that, he needed a fuel cell sensor that was simultaneously small enough, accurate enough, and cheap enough for your everyday consumer. Semi-conductor sensors require an outside power source. Fuel cell sensors, on the other hand, work like car batteries by creating their own power so long as they're continuously used.
Rather than use anything on the market, Gollar built his own fuel cell, small enough to fit your pocket but powerful enough to give an accurate reading. It comes with longevity, too. If you use it every day, it'll last for five years.
Creating the sensor wasn't difficult, but creating software to allow the breathalyzer to operate without a sampling system was. That system is a "pump of some kind" that measures the rate of breath, so the device knows when to make a reading. It could never fit on a keychain, so he created software that interprets a person's blowing patterns and tells the sensor when to make a reading.
By next year, Gollar hopes to revolutionize the interlock system as well, by creating a discreet, detachable version.
While the breathalyzer's function might be basic, its possibilities become endless when you hook one up to a smartphone.
Two companies are taking advantage of this opportunity by creating breathalyzers that plug into phones: the Italian-based startup 2045Tech and the San Francisco-based BACTrack.
2045Tech boasts its version, FLOOME, as the most accurate smartphone breathalyzer on the market. It already had its preliminary FDA application approved and has filed for a patent for its "vortex whistle," the innovation that turned this breathalyzer into a fashion statement.
"We are Italian. We love design," co-founder Matteo Petrani told me over Skype from his offices in Italy. But he also saw a severe problem with people not knowing how drunk they were. "The drunk driving problem ... is an overlooked problem. [People think] 'It won't happen to me, because I drive slowly and carefully.'" He paused, then followed with what sounds like a joke but is anything but: "The drunk walking problem somehow is even more dangerous than drunk driving."
In France, it's mandatory to have a breathalyzer in the car. In America it isn't. Either way, there is nothing hip about having one, but Petrani noticed something that is hip: "nowadays there is a huge trend of wearable technology," such as pedometers.
But making the breathalyzer look sleek while retaining accuracy presented a simple logistical problem, the same one Gollar faced with his keychain breathalyzer: how to create a flow meter. Thus the "vortex whistle" was born.
Blow into the tiny device, and it creates a whistling frequency in the alto tone, which is proportional to the flow rate of your blow. That is then picked up by a microphone that sends the frequency to a microprocessor, which calculates a flow rate. Then, it knows when you've blown enough, and the fuel cell takes a measurement.
The device certainly is slick, but even slicker is what it can do. At the moment, it utilizes smartphone technology to learn your metabolism so it can accurately judge how long before you're safe to drive. It saves all your results and compares them to previous ones. The more you use it, the better it gets to know you.
While FLOOME wins the crown for design, the fuel cell-powered BACtrack Mobile takes more advantage of the smartphone. It connects via Bluetooth, and it offers a veritable boatload of features, from personal tracking to national stat-gathering.
The BACtrack Mobile and its accompanying app allow you to be as private or public with your BAC information as you like. If you want to use the device on a one-off basis, never recording your information, you can. If you want to track your BAC over a long period of time -- perhaps to see how much you've been drinking lately or so it will learn your body and offer more accurate sobering times (via what it calls ZeroLine) -- go for it. Finally, if you want to participate in BACtrack WorldView, that's completely up to you.
And it's kind of amazing. The WorldView offers an option to completely anonymously upload your BAC to a database that displays real-time BACs from across the globe.
Says Nothacker: "Think of what the charts could do." If you want to see how the BACs of the people of New Orleans rise during a Saints game, you can. If you want to know if people drink more on New Year's Eve or Christmas Eve, you can. If you want to compare cities, you can. From there, you can implement measures to increase public safety.
"This is something that can be as private or as social as you want to it to be," Nothacker said. After all, his aim is simple: reducing drinking and driving. "We know when people have the product, there's more awareness," Nothacker said. "People are less likely to drink and drive when they have this."
Measuring drugs via breath
This one feels a bit like cheating, because the device itself doesn't actually record anything. In fact, it probably seems like the simplest idea since the ice-cube tray. That's not far off. It's so simple, scientists thought it couldn't be done. In fact, the SensAbues, a handheld device that could change drug testing forever, was created off of a bet.
SensAbues CEO Bo Hammarlund tells the story from his office in Swenden: We've all seen the classic cartoon shtick in which a character yells something into a jar, which is later opened by a different character. At that point, the words come screaming out. A friend of Professor Olof Beck bet that you could do the same thing with drug testing: have someone breathe into a container, then later test that air. Beck, a professor of analytical toxicology and pharmacology at the Karolinska Institutet, was convinced the idea was ridiculous and set out to prove this. Thus the SensAbues was born.
The device is "actually a collective device," said Hammarlund. "When you breathe, every time you expand your lungs, tons of small water particles -- aerosols -- are freed from the walls of the lungs." The device, equipped with an electrostatic filter, collects these aerosols. Then, simply seal the device and send it to a lab housing a liquid chromatography-mass spectrometer, which most modern labs should have.
The breathalyzers listed above offer readings on the spot, but that's simply not possible at this point with regards to drugs. But this does open a door that's been closed for some time. Previously, we had urine, hair, and blood tests. Each was easy enough to cheat to some degree, not to mention they generally couldn't be administered on-site, giving the drugs a chance to exit one's system.
Consider this example: someone is pulled over, suspected of driving under the influence. He isn't drunk, but drug use is suspected. The options at this point are limited, and they take time. Many drugs leave the body fairy quickly. Many people know how to cheat drug tests.
But the breath test has been proven just as effective as the blood test, and it can be done on the spot. When it comes to blood tests, cocaine will leave the system in about two hours; marijuana will in about twelve to twenty-four hours. The ability to measure these things on the spot is a game-changer. Which is why in April SenAbues began seeing use in workplace drug testing, school drug testing, prisons, and rehab clinics. According to Hammarlund, the Swedish police force is evaluating the device. Currently, it is also in the process of getting FDA registrations.
Whatever it is you want to track, whichever breathalyzer technology suits you, one thing is certain: this technology keeps us accountable.
"We know that by people using a breathalyzer, there is a vast reduction in driving while impaired," Nothacker says. "Not only is [this tech] changing people's perceptions about personal breathalyzers, we know it is changing their behaviors."
Then he puts it more simply. "This is a device that can save people's lives."