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pledged of 25.000 $pledged of 25.000 $ goal
Funding Unsuccessful
The project's funding goal was not reached on Thu, October 23 2014 9:00 PM UTC +00:00
pledged of 25.000 $pledged of 25.000 $ goal
Funding Unsuccessful
The project's funding goal was not reached on Thu, October 23 2014 9:00 PM UTC +00:00


Three years ago, during the BP oil disaster, our community began developing a kit to identify oil pollution. Crude oil was spilling ashore in sheets, and to this day, tarballs regularly wash up on beaches along the US Gulf Coast. But without lab testing, it was easy for BP to deny responsibility and difficult for coastal residents to prove that contamination was occurring. 

Around the world, oil and gas contamination affects communities in similar ways, and most lack the basic tools to measure the presence of crude, heating, or motor oil, which contain carcinogenic PAHs. 

Left to right: dried oil on rocks in 2010, Louisiana coast by Cesar Harada CC-BY-NC-SA, oil residue in the ocean in 2010, Louisiana coast by Cesar Harada CC-BY-NC-SA, Oil tanker leak on tracks beside Mississippi River, by @marlokeno, swabbing a street grate by @warren

Public Lab is an open network of contributors -- people like you -- who work together to invent affordable, open source techniques to measure environmental pollution. Read about some of our work here.  Also make sure to check out some of the other kits we developed. 

The Kit

The Public Lab Oil Testing Kit is based around our open source spectrometer (successfully Kickstarted in 2012), and uses an ultraviolet (Blu-Ray) laser to cause a fluorescent glow in diluted pollutant samples. We measure and graph the colors emitted and attempt to match this “signature” to that of known samples of oil. (See “How does it work?” below.)

Since our 2012 Kickstarter, we've improved and simplified our spectrometer design, integrating hundreds of refinements from a community of thousands of members. The new kit, though extremely precise, is constructed from pre-scored cardboard to keep costs low, and integrates a sampling chamber and light source. It is simple to assemble and includes all the parts you’ll need to begin doing your own oil analyses. 

Learn more on the Public Lab Wiki »

The kit itself includes supplies for collecting, preparing, and scanning samples, including sample jars and some olive oil as a safe test sample, since olive oil fluoresces similarly to crude oil residue. Currently, the parts list includes:

  • a USB webcam 
  • a fold-up cardboard frame
  • a light-shielding cardboard sampling box
  • a DVD-R for use as a DIY diffraction grating
  • a rigid "optical bench" to hold your components in place
  • a high-resolution printed optical slit to form a beam of light
  • sample jars filled with mineral oil (to dissolve samples)
  • cotton swabs and rubber gloves
  • an ultraviolet "blu ray" laser pen
  • assorted clips and mounting hardware

Note that we've worked to ensure that you can source every piece yourself -- this is open source, after all. 

$10 reward

To support our work, you can also get a papercraft spectrometer -- the "heart" of the main kit but without sampling supplies or a laser. Turn your smartphone or webcam into a spectrometer using just this fold-up black paper design and a fragment of a DVD-R (included). Learn more and get the plans here

The Challenge

Today, we're inviting you to pitch in and help take the Oil Testing Kit to the next level. We've designed the kit to be affordable, easy to use, yet precise--and of course, open source, so you can download the plans and build one yourself today. We've done a lot of work, but we still need to:

  • standardize and simplify sample preparation
  • simplify calibration and create a system for intensity calibration
  • catalog and compare known reference samples of oils
  • study the effects of aging and temperature on samples
  • improve our analysis and matching methods
  • reproduce and replicate the work to build credibility

And above all, we need to work together to make it super easy to collect credible evidence of where oil pollution originates -- and who’s responsible. 

Join the Beta program (see below) to become an early adopter and get a prototype kit if you want to begin contributing ASAP. Or wait a bit longer and join the 1.0 launch.

Beta program

Even after all the progress we’ve made, there are still issues to resolve and improvements to make. To continue the open, collaborative nature of this project, we're shipping 50 "early access" kits before the main launch, which we are asking those of you who sign up for the Beta Program to assemble, critique, modify, improve, and refine -- as active contributors on the open research website. Of course, the plans are open source and already online, so you can also participate just by assembling your own. 

The Beta Program is limited to 50 backers, but everyone else is welcome to sign up for the standard kit as part of the main launch. To participate in the Beta Program, you’ll be asked to make a series of posts on about your experiences, feedback, and suggestions for the kit. You’ll also get more one-on-one support from our staff. 

More details about the Beta Program will be announced soon.

How does it work?

The Homebrew Oil Testing Kit is an open source Do-It-Yourself kit, which attempts to make it possible to identify oil pollution by type. This means matching a suspected sample with a known sample of crude oil, motor oil, heating oil, or other petroleum-based contaminant by using a homemade fluorescence spectrometer. A spectrometer enables you to precisely measure the colors of light emitted by carefully prepared samples when they are illuminated with strong ultraviolet light, as shown above.

The process of testing for oils can be described in three overall steps:

  • collecting samples of suspected oil or tar from the ground, and dissolving small amounts in mineral oil so they are transparent 
  • illuminating the solutions with ultraviolet light -- currently a 405 nanometer ("Blu-Ray") laser -- and recording the light spectrum with a DIY spectrometer
  • comparing the spectrum to those of similarly prepared samples of known pollutant oils, as well as a negative control, using our open source tool


We’ve based much of our work on the large amount of scientific literature available on fluorescence spectroscopy for oil identification. A selection of articles have been collected and summarized on this page -- and we welcome contributions to the list. 

A session from the 2014 Northeast Public Lab “Barnraising” - a community event where projects like the Homebrew Oil Testing Kit are developed and refined. 

Who are we?

While Public Lab is an open community of thousands, this project is being launched by the small team which runs the Public Lab non-profit, which supports the community and has successfully launched and fulfilled 4 Kickstarters to date:

The Public Lab Kits Initiative is the part of the Public Lab non-profit which creates, assembles and distributes open source environmental testing kits by combining the contributions and innovations of the Public Lab community. A variety of kits are available in the Public Lab web store, and purchases made there help to support the non-profit.  The Homebrew Oil Testing Kit is being launched as part of Public Lab’s Homebrew Sensing Project (with generous support from the Knight Foundation), and is led by several members of the non-profit staff:

Stevie Lewis works with community groups and contributors in the Gulf Coast region to field-test oil sampling approaches and draw upon local expertise about oil contamination and its effects.

Mathew Lippincott applies his deep interest in materials and production techniques to kit sourcing and manufacturing, develops hardware and new kits, researches testing methodologies, and works with Jeff (below) on kits packaging, documentation, and videos.

Natalie Mayorga manages the Kits Initiative, including inventory and distribution, and works with Mathew and Jeff to develop new kits. 

Jeffrey Warren develops hardware and software, coordinates community research, and works with Mathew to design kit packaging and documentation, as well as create our Kickstarter videos. 

Read about the rest of the Public Lab non-profit team here.


Many thanks to everyone in the Public Lab community, and especially to those who helped put this campaign and video together:

And to all of Public Lab's staff, organizers & contributors!

Risks and challenges


This kind of massively collaborative project comes with unique challenges. We plan to integrate feedback and design improvements from many contributors, including those in the Beta Program (see above). This can be time consuming, and introduces unknowns to the project's development, but it is also one of the greatest strengths of the Public Lab research process. Such collaboration allows for a diverse and open process that examines problems from every side and brings many different eyes -- and perspectives -- to bear on problems.


Our challenge will be to ask the right questions and listen carefully to contributors' suggestions when developing a final design. We hope to tackle such challenges as:

* ensuring enough light reaches the camera from the samples
* testing reproducibility and consistency of the methods
* simplifying and improving matching techniques
* better understanding the effects of weathering & degradation on samples

Additional challenges remain in the development of the analysis software:

* easy to understand and use interface
* improved data analysis tools
* streamlined calibration process and potentially auto-calibration


Our greatest challenge will be to ensure that the kits are useful in real-world pollution scenarios, and even in the field -- both that they are straightforward enough to use and that they can collect credible evidence of pollution and its sources.

Still, we have launched four previous successful Kickstarters, and the ability of our community to rise to challenges and solve problems is well demonstrated. This will be our second spectrometry-based Kickstarter, and much of the hardware and fulfillment has already been well explored -- we’ve been shipping DIY spectrometers for almost two years. We are confident that we can successfully ship an affordable kit in quantity.


We are moving our kit from a very DIY design based on re-used consumer products (like conduit piping) to a more easily modifiable design made from cardboard, wood, and other materials that can be modified and remixed with just scissors and simple hand tools. This does involves more manufacturing, however -- to produce thousands of kits, we’ll have cardboard manufacturers create custom die-cuts, and we’ll need to coordinate production between paper and cardboard makers, printers, and assembly teams. This will bring a new level of finish to our kits while keeping costs low, so we can continue to provide extremely affordable tools.

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  1. Select this reward

    Pledge US$ 10 or more About US$ 10

    Support the project and receive a working papercraft spectrometer you can attach to a smartphone or webcam.

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    44 backers
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    Pledge US$ 50 or more About US$ 50

    The Homebrew Oil Testing Kit - everything you need, from UV light to sample containers, to begin your own DIY oil testing experiments.

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    85 backers
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  3. Select this reward

    Pledge US$ 100 or more About US$ 100

    Join the Beta Testing Program to get an early-release prototype -- as well as get involved in assembling, critiquing, modifying, improving, and refining the kit before the main launch.

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    Ships to Anywhere in the world
    Limited 29 backers
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  4. Select this reward

    Pledge US$ 1,000 or more About US$ 1,000

    The DIY Tar Sands Kit - turn pristine ecosystems into high-octane fuel in your own home! Read Update #1 for details. (Translation: support our efforts to make oil pollution analysis cheaper and more accessible.)

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    Ships to Anywhere in the world
    0 backers
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Funding period

- (29 days)