"The onset of meningitis is often rapid and severe, particularly when a bacterial infection is the cause and the latest research could speed up diagnosis, leading to better outcomes for patient," the Glasgow-based University of Strathclyde said in a statement.
The test uses nanoparticles and lasers to fingerprint more than one bacterium at a time - and so opens the way for targeted treatment.
Unless caught quickly, bacterial meningitis can lead to blood poisoning and brain damage.
Bacterial meningitis is most common in children under five and it can often take time to diagnose precisely which bacteria are responsible.
The new process - called Surface Enhanced Raman Scattering (SERS) - scatters laser light from a sample that has been combined with silver nanoparticles.
Dr Karen Faulds, a Reader in Strathclyde's Department of Pure and Applied Chemistry, led the study.
"Meningitis is a hugely virulent and, in some forms, potentially highly dangerous infection. The type of antibiotic used to treat it depends on the strain of meningitis, so it is essential to identify this as quickly as possible," Faulds said.
"The great advantage of the SERS technique is that it gives sharp, recognisable signals, like finger printing, so we can more easily discriminate what analytes or chemical substances are present in a mixture."
Combining the SERS technique with chemometrics data-driven extraction of information from chemical systems means the amount of bacteria in a sample can be measured whilst simultaneously identifying the bacteria.
The researchers believe the new test would be particularly useful where co-infection of multiple species is common and identifying the dominant pathogen present would allow targeted treatment.
The study has been published in the journal Chemical Science.