How Does a Breathalyzer Work?

By: Craig Freudenrich, Ph.D.  | 
Police officer administering a roadside breathalyzer test to a driver.
Did you really pay attention to how much you drank before you got on the road, or are you just guessing? Don't worry, the police can help you out with that.
ANATOLII BOIKO/Stringer/Getty Images

We hear and read about drivers involved in an accident who are later charged with drunken driving, and usually a news report on the accident will reveal the driver's blood alcohol content. A driver might be found to have a level of 0.15, for example, while the legal limit is 0.08. To comprehend how we can gain access to such precise numbers, we have to ask ourselves: how does a breathalyzer work?

What do those figures mean? And how do police officers find out if someone they suspect has been drinking is actually legally drunk? Many offic­ers in the field rely on breath alcohol testing devices to determine the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) in drunken-driving suspects. In this article, we will examine the scientific principles and technology behind the Breathalyzer and other breath alcohol testing devices.


Alcohol Consumption Kills

­­It is important for pu­blic safety that drunken drivers be taken off the roads. A stat from 2023: 37 people in the United States died in car crashes involving an alcohol-impaired driver, equating to one death every 39 minutes. More than a quarter (31%) of all traffic-related deaths were directly related to alcohol impairment​​.

Drivers who can pass roadside sobriety tests — they can touch their noses or walk a straight line — still might be breaking the legal limit for blood alcohol and be a hazard on the road. So police officers use some of the latest technology to detect alcohol levels in suspected drunken drivers and remove them from the streets.


If you're drinking alcohol, don't get behind the wheel. A breathalyzer measures a person's breath with remarkable accuracy. Besides, by hailing a cab or taking the bus, you can avoid being responsible for drunk driving incidents! If you really can't trust yourself, either avoid alcohol or purchase an ignition interlock device that won't start your car without a breath sample.

Why Test?

­Alcohol intoxication is legally defined by the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level. However, taking a blood sample in the field for later analysis in the laboratory is not practical or efficient for detaining drivers suspected of driving while impaired (DWI) or driving under the influence (DUI). Urine tests for alcohol proved to be just as impractical in the field as blood sampling. What was needed was a way to measure something related to BAC without invading a suspect's body.

In the 1940s, breath alcohol testing devices were first developed for use by police. In 1954, Dr. Robert Borkenstein of the Indiana State Police invented the Breathalyzer, one type of breath alcohol testing device used by law enforcement agencies today.


Let's take a look at what these tests are based on.

Detecting Alcohol: the Principle of Testing

An alcoholic beverage shows up in the breath because it gets absorbed from the mouth, throat, stomach and intestines into the bloodstream.

Alcohol­ is not digested upon absorption, nor chemically changed in the bloodstream. As the blood goes through the lungs, some of the alcohol moves across the membranes of the lung's air sacs (alveoli) into the air, because alcohol will evaporate from a solution — that is, it is volatile. The concentration of the alcohol in the alveolar air is related to the concentration of the alcohol in the blood.


As the alcohol in the alveolar air is exhaled, it can be detected by the breath alcohol testing device. Instead of having to draw a driver's blood to test his alcohol level, an officer can test the driver's breath on the spot and instantly know if there is a reason to arrest the driver. Breathalyzers operate so well because they understand how the body processes alcohol.

How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?

Since the alcohol concentration in the breath is related to that in the blood, you can figure the BAC by measuring alcohol on the breath. The ratio of breath alcohol concentration to blood alcohol content is 2,100:1. This means that 2,100 milliliters (ml) of alveolar air will contain the same amount of alcohol as 1 ml of blood.

For many years, the legal standard for drunkenness across the United States was 0.10, but many states have now adopted the 0.08 standard. The federal government has pushed states to lower the legal limit. The American Medical Association says that a person can become impaired when the blood alcohol level hits 0.05. If a person's BAC measures 0.08, it means that there are 0.08 grams of alcohol per 100 ml of blood.


Types of Breathalyzer Technology

Diagram of chemical reaction from breathalyzer detecting alcohol.
Diagram of chemical reaction from breathalyzer detecting alcohol.

There are three major types of breath alcohol testing devices, and they're based on different principles:

  • Breathalyzer - Uses a chemical reaction involving alcohol that produ­ces a color change
  • Intoxilyzer - Detects alcohol by infrared (IR) spectroscopy
  • Alcosensor III or IV - Detects a chemical reaction of alcohol in a fuel cell

Regardless of the type, each device has a mouthpiece, a tube through which the suspect blows air, and a sample chamber where the air goes. The rest of the device varies with the type.


How Breathalyzers Work

The Breathalyzer device contains:

  • A system to sample the breath of the suspect
  • Two glass vials containing the chemical reaction mixture
  • A system of photocells connected to a meter to measure the color change associated with the chemical reaction

To measure alcohol molecules, a suspect breathes into the device. The breath sample is bubbled in one vial through a mixture of sulfuric acid, potassium dichromate, silver nitrate and water.


Chemical Reactions

The principle of the measurement is based on the following chemical reaction:

  1. The sulfuric acid removes the alcohol from the air into a liquid solution.
  2. The alcohol reacts with potassium dichromate to produce: chromium sulfate potassium sulfate acetic acid water

The silver nitrate is a catalyst, a substance that makes a reaction go faster without participating in it. The sulfuric acid, in addition to removing the alcohol from the air, also might provide the acidic condition needed for this reaction.

During this reaction, the reddish-orange dichromate ion changes color to the green chromium ion when it reacts with the alcohol; the degree of the color change is directly related to the level of alcohol in the expelled air. To determine the amount of alcohol in that air, the reacted mixture is compared to a vial of unreacted mixture in the photocell system, which produces an electric current that causes the needle in the meter to move from its resting place.

The operator then rotates a knob to bring the needle back to the resting place and reads the level of alcohol from the knob — the more the operator must turn the knob to return it to rest, the greater the level of alcohol.


Types of Devices: Intoxilyzer

Diagram of the Intoxilyzer
Diagram of the Intoxilyzer

­This device uses infrared (IR) spectroscopy, which identifies molecules ba­sed on the way they absorb IR light.

Molecules are constantly vibrating, and these vibrations change when the molecules absorb IR light. The changes in vibration include the bending and stretching of various bonds. Each type of bond within a molecule absorbs IR at different wavelengths.


So, to identify ethanol in a sample, you have to look at the wavelengths of the bonds in ethanol (C-O, O-H, C-H, C-C) and measure the absorption of IR light. The absorbed wavelengths help to identify the substance as ethanol, and the amount of IR absorption tells you how much ethanol is there.

Diagram of the Intoxilyzer
Diagram of the Intoxilyzer

In the Intoxilyzer:

  1. A lamp generates a broadband (multiple-wavelength) IR beam.
  2. The broadband IR beam passes through the sample chamber and is focused by a lens onto a spinning filter wheel.
  3. The filter wheel contains narrow band filters specific for the wavelengths of the bonds in ethanol. The light passing through each filter is detected by the photocell, where it is converted to an electrical pulse.
  4. The electrical pulse is relayed to the microprocessor, which interprets the pulses and calculates the BAC based on the absorption of infrared light.


How the Alcosensor III or IV Works

­Moder­n fuel-cell technology (which may power our cars and even our houses some day) has been applied to breath-alcohol detectors. Devices like the Alcosensor III and IV use fuel cell sensors.

The fuel cell has two platinum electrodes with a porous acid-electrolyte material sandwiched between them. As the exhaled air from the suspect flows past one side of the fuel cell, the platinum oxidizes any alcohol in the air to produce acetic acid, protons and electrons.


The electrons flow through a wire from the platinum electrode. The wire is connected to an electrical-current meter and to the platinum electrode on the other side. The protons move through the lower portion of the fuel cell and combine with oxygen and the electrons on the other side to form water. The more alcohol that becomes oxidized, the greater the electrical current. A microprocessor measures the electrical current and calculates the BAC.


Breath Tests in a Legal Setting

Operators of any breath alcohol testing device must be trained in the use and calibration of the device, especially if the results are to be used as evidence in DWI trials. Law enforcement officers can carry portable breath testing devices that use the same principle as full-size devices.

Court cases can turn on the perceived accuracy of a breath test, however, so prosecutors rely on the results obtained from full-size devices. So, if you're consuming alcohol, do not risk the jail-time or other consequences of getting behind the wheel.


For more information on Breathalyzers and related topics, check out the links below.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.


Breathalyzers FAQs

How long after drinking can you pass a breathalyzer test?
This depends entirely on your metabolism. Some digest and pass alcohol faster while some are slow. In general, breathalyzers can detect alcohol in a person's system 15 minutes after consumption and about 12 to 18 hours later.
How do breathalyzers detect alcohol?
Since alcohol is a volatile substance (it evaporates at room temperature) its fumes start mixing with your breath. The more concentrated it is, the more of these fumes enter the blood stream. Of course, when air with these fumes is exhaled, breathalyzers can detect it.
How accurate is a breathalyzer?
Modern breathalyzers are fairly accurate, but they're not perfect. They do have a margin of error, as any device can, and can be off as much as .01 percent.
What do breathalyzer numbers mean?
The numbers are the measure of your blood alcohol concentration (BAC). This is determined by when you blow into the breathalyzer and it evaluates the levels of alcohol in your breath. In most states, you are considered legally intoxicated when your BAC is .08 percent.