3 Types of Breathalyzers

A breathalyzer between a car key and a bottle of an alcoholic drink on black background.

Drinking and driving are one of the worst – and most dangerous – things that you could do. Drunk driving, if anything, is highly irresponsible and perilous. It does not only put your own life in extreme danger but also great risks the lives of those around or near you.

Thanks to the massive technological advancements taking place in today’s day and age, there are certain law enforcement devices that have been primarily designed to test and measure the blood alcohol levels of suspected drunk drivers. These commonly used devices are called “Breathalyzers”. They work by producing a reading in order to determine the absence or presence of alcohol in a person’s breath. It basically gives a reading for the BAC (blood alcohol content). So, if your breath reads more than 0.80% of BAC, you can be fined or even jailed for drunk driving because it is illegal to drive if your breath records a greater percentage of alcohol than the standard numbers.

Other than breathalyzers, there are also devices like Intoxilyzers that use infrared spectroscopy, and the Alcosensor that basically measures chemical reactions produced in fuel cells. The most common feature of all these devices is that each comes with a mouthpiece which is basically shaped like a tube. An individual is supposed to blow air through this tube which then enters a sample chamber.

A Breakdown of Alcohol TestingA man holding a device

Breathalyzers and other such alcohol testing devices aim to measure the alcohol content found in alcoholic beverages. This alcohol is called ethanol or, in other words, ethyl alcohol. When you consume any such beverage, this ethanol shows up in your breathe because as it gets absorbed in a process by a number of your body parts like the mouth, throat, intestines, and stomach. Once it is absorbed, it is transferred into your bloodstream.

The thing with alcohol is that it is not digested immediately after being consumed and is also not affected by any chemical reaction that takes place in your bloodstream.

As the blood travels through your lungs, some of the alcohol that your blood absorbed earlier finds its way into the air sacs present in your lungs. These air sacs are called alveoli and through them, the alcohol moves into the air. This is where breath testing devices come into play. The alveolar air contains a certain amount of alcohol concentration which is relative to the alcohol concentration found in a person’s blood. When you exhale this alveolar air that does have traces of alcohol in it, these devices can instantly detect and identify the presence of alcohol.

This whole process is why breath testing devices for blood alcohol have become so popular and common. When using them, you no longer have to draw a person’s blood in order to test their alcohol level. All you need to do is test their breath to check if they have been drinking and driving.

Types of Breathalyzers

There are numerous types of breath alcohol testers, each with unique and distinctive features as well as varied prices. These breath testing devices are used by several law enforcement agencies and also by consumers for personal use.

These are some of the most common and popular types of breathalyzers used in today’s time that can be categorized according to the specific sensors they use in order to measure the blood alcohol level.

Semiconductor BreathalyzerDevice for checking alcohol traces

This is a relatively new kind of breathalyzer that is fairly affordable and has been found to be fairly accurate in terms of the test results it produces. These breathalyzers make use of semiconductor sensors which have lower power consumption. This is one of the main reasons why they are affordable and cheaper than other types of breathalyzers.

The semiconductors sensors used here are also called “Taguchi cells” and they get heated up when exposed to high temperatures. The surface of the sensor basically aims to measure the degree of oxidization of alcohol by the tester.

These breathalyzers offer a viable solution to all those drivers who first wish to ensure that they can drive a vehicle with safety and precaution. This is because they greatly help control the content or amount of alcohol contained in the breathed air in a car. They are also quite easy and quick to use and performs really well especially when employed for personal use.

Semiconductor breathalyzers work by carrying out an interior response of ethyl alcohol. What the device does is that it generates an electrical current when a certain amount of alcohol is exhaled. This amount is believed to be the same or almost relative to the quantity that you would expect to find in the individual’s blood.

An important feature to note about these breathalyzers is that the sensors present in them are not particularly specific to alcohol vapors. They also respond to and produce results for other gases that may hold some similarity to ethyl alcohol. Examples of these gases can be methane and the organic gas called acetone that is found in the human breath. However, one must understand here that the only significant gas, in this case, is ethyl alcohol, and for those who haven’t consumed any alcohol in the past 12 hours yet the readings on the breathalyzer show positive, it is due to the miscellaneous gases found in a person’s breath.

Fuel Cell BreathalyzerPerson in a car using Breathalyzer

The fuel cell breathalyzer is the one that is majorly used by the police and respective authorities like police stations. It is popularly used for its ability to produce the most accurate and precise readings, which is one of the reasons why it can also be used as legal evidence in the court.

Fuel cell initially started off as a way to generate electricity in space after which it proved to be an extremely reliable alcohol sensor to produce test results for checking the amount of breath alcohol or an individual’s blood alcohol content. They are super accurate and sensitive which is why they are the most preferred alcohol testing device in situations or instances that demand extremely reliable results.

Compared to sensors present in the semiconductor breath analyzers, the ones in the fuel cell devices offer more exact readings at higher blood alcohol content concen5tration (BAC). The latter’s sensors depend on an electrochemical process in which the alcohol present in a breath sample is oxidized because of which an electrical current is generated. The breathalyzer then measures this electric current as a result of which it can then determine the BAC reading.

The basic model of the fuel cell breathalyzer consists of two platinum electrodes that are contained within a porous material. This material holds a solution of diluted sulfuric acid. Either side of the platinum coated wafer has electrodes attached to it. When air is exhaled and passed through the surface of the wafer, it results in a chemical reaction in which the platinum basically oxidizes any amount of alcohol present in the air. The chemical reaction then converts the alcohol into acetic acid. As a result of this conversion, excess electrons are set free which reveal the blood alcohol content by flowing through the wire present in the platinum electrodes.

These breathalyzers maintain their accuracy levels over an extended time period primarily because they require less –frequent recalibration as compared to the semiconductor breathalyzers. Although they are super expensive due to the high costs of the platinum used in these devices, they will never produce inaccurate or false positive results for those individuals who follow a low-calorie healthy diet or perhaps, those who may have diabetic tendencies.  Another great plus point of these breathalyzers is that they do not respond to breath acetone, cigarette smoke or other vapors so there is absolutely no chance that they will read positive when there is no alcohol present.

Spectrophotometer Breathalyzer

These testing devices are typically set up at police stations given how large and expensive they are. Previously, the Spectrophotometer Breathalyzer was the only type of testing equipment that could be accepted in courts as legal evidence until fuel cell breathalyzers also started showing promising and accurate results.

When used properly with controlled conditioner, this type of breathalyzer provides exact and very precise results at the time of breath testing and checking breath sample for blood alcohol level.

The Spectrophotometer Breathalyzer makes use of infrared sensors in order to define intoxication. The infrared absorption technology is actually completely different from fuel cell as well as semiconductor sensors. When alcohol vapor is injected into these breathalyzers, they produce certain measurable changes in the wavelength and energy. These changes are basically a result of comparisons between ambient values and alcohol molecules that are measured in the absence of any alcohol. So, when there is an actual presence of alcohol, it can be identified and calculated very easily in the sample chamber.

The major difference between other types of breathalyzers and the ones that are based on infrared technology is that the latter doesn’t produce any chemical reaction. These sensors do not react at all with alcohol directly, rather they measure and take into account the effects produced by this alcohol on the infrared beam. The main benefit or advantage attached to this feature is that when you do a breath test through infrared sensors, you can actually preserve the original sample if you ever need to analyze it in the future.

The United States and many other countries have standardized the use of infrared-based breathalyzer devices like the Spectrophotometer Breathalyzer during alcohol screening in situations such as substance abuse or consumption of alcoholic beverages. The popularity of these breathalyzers doesn’t lie in the fact that they are actually able to sense the presence of alcohol when different types of molecules absorb infrared light and are then measures to an individual’s BAC. It actually has to do with how the results are recorded in a tamper-proof manner and that when proper breath samples are taken, the device does produce accurate and correct results only when the machine is working properly.


Breathalyzers have clearly made it very easy and convenient for legal authorities to check drivers for alcohol traces right on the spot. Most of these devices produce accurate readings which are an added advantage. This is one of the reasons why you should avoid alcohol consumption especially when you are out on the road driving. If anything, you should take into account your personal safety as well as of those around you!

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