Electronic Nose Detects Harmful Airborne Chemicals

electronic nose© UC Riverside

A new sensor technology developed by the University of California Riverside could have many helpful applications for the environment, human health and national security. The "electronic nose" is able to detect small amounts of hazardous airborne chemicals like pesticides, combustion emissions, gas leaks, and chemical warfare agents.

The initial prototype is about four inches by seven inches and it includes a computer chip, USB ports and temperature and humidity sensors. The researchers are working on a second prototype that will also include a GPS device, a Bluetooth unit to sync it with a smartphone and possibly Wi-Fi capabilities. They're also hoping to condense it down to the size of a credit card with sensors capable of detecting eight different toxins. A single toxin detecting sensor could be contained on a device the size of a fingernail.

electronic nose sensor© UC Riverside

The research was done by Nosang Myung and his team at UC Riverside, but company Nano Engineered Applications, Inc. is designing the product and hopes to have a commercial version ready in a year. The company is currently working on writing software that works with the device and thinks that the first applications will be industrial with companies using it to detect even tiny amounts of gas and toxin leaks and emissions.

UC Riverside says, "The key to the prototype is the nanosensor array that Myung started developing eight years ago. It uses functionalized carbon nanotubes, which are 100,000 times finer than human hair, to detect airborne toxins down to the parts per billion level."

The designers see the device being used in three different platforms: a handheld device, a wearable device and in a smartphone. The platform would depend on the toxins it needed to detect. A wearable unit could be used by asthma sufferers who need to constantly monitor air quality or by soldiers in the field who may come in contact with harmful chemicals. A handheld device could be used in environmental applications like detecting gas leaks and spills, while one embedded in a smartphone could be carried by public safety officers to detect any harmful airborne agents.

Electronic Nose Detects Harmful Airborne Chemicals
The sensor can recognize the presence of pesticides, gas leaks and other hazardous chemicals.

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