Take my breath away.

Chemistry. Biology. Physics. And how breathalyzers are designed using principles also found in food and cooking.


breathalyzers1-Minute NomNom

Alcohol has been featured several times on this site. While we don’t expect many of you to get drunk on these, the design of breathalyzers is an excellent example of how the same science can be applied from food and cooking into other fields.

From chemistry and biology…

Breathalyzers work because alcohol is soluble in water and fat, just like in cooking with alcohol.

Clams in wine sauce

Alcohol, chemically known as ethanol, is easily absorbed by the bloodstream and membranes because it is fat and water soluble (which is also why cooking with alcohol tastes so good – read all about it in the 1-Minute NomNom “Water you mean I’m fat too?“). 

Breathalyzers use alcohol's volatility, just like cooking with alcohol increases the aromasThe alcohol then makes its way to our lungs and because it is volatile (which is also why cooking with alcohol smells so good – read all about it in the 1-Minute NomNom “Water you mean I smell?“), it is expelled when we breathe.

… to chemistry and physics!

The amount of ethanol expelled is proportional to how much alcohol we have consumed and is now in body. When we breathe into the breathalyzers, the ethanol reacts with the platinum inside to produce acetic acid (also commonly known as vinegar), two free electrons and two free protons.

blowing into breathalyzersThe more ethanol in your breath, the more free electrons. And since “an electric current is a flow of electric charge… often carried by moving electrons“, the more free electrons, the higher the current. When this current is measured, it is an estimate of the alcohol level we have consumed and is now in our bodies.

Breathalyzers demonstrate how what we learn in one field can be applied to understand something. It also demonstrates how design often connects different disciplines, in this case biology, chemistry and physics. Once we understand the fundamental principles, we can do wonders that take people’s breath away!


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photos: in order – depositphotos/aijohn784KaszaGreatstockzstockphotos

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