The Electronic Tongue — Not Just a Groovy Name for a Rock Band

In general, the human tongue is pretty good at its job: it can distinguish sweet, sour, salt and bitter like nobody’s business. But scientists at the University of Texas are working on an electronic tongue whose abilities may put some human tongues out of work.

The electronic tongue is a silicon chip with small spherical beads a little bigger in diameter than a hair. The beads act like a bunch of tiny test tubes, holding liquid that’s poured on them. When ultraviolet light is shined on the chip, it causes an optical change in the beads that allows scientists to analyze the liquid. One tongue, which is about the size of a dime, can hold around a hundred of these beads, each of which works independently.

The tongue is still in development, but potential uses include medical diagnostics such as reading blood samples – not an area where the human tongue has been much use. And the device might find a place in beverage tasting facilities, where creating uniform taste is the name of the game.

The question of whether the electronic tongue will ever supplant human testers is still up for debate. “We’re not trying to replace somebody who’s telling you if a beverage tastes good or not, but using it to monitor that what you made today is the same as what you made yesterday,” says Dean Neikerk, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University, based in Austin, and one of the project’s sponsors.

No word yet on how many times in a row the e-tongue can repeat “She sells seashells by the seashore” without tripping up.