We love stories about biomimicry, where something in nature is replicated in something manmade to make it even better. This happens a lot in technology, from solar coatings inspired by butterfly wings to insect-mimicking robots, but very often those concepts are meant for future applications in technology down the road. That's why it's so exciting to read about a biomimicking technology that has a real-world application right now and is ready to go.
That's the case with a new nanotech device that is inspired by the biology behind a dog's supremely sensitive sense of smell to sniff out airborne chemicals from explosives or other sources that the human nose can't detect. The device, developed by mechanical engineering and chemistry researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, mimics the biological mechanism in canine scent receptors to not only detect trace amounts of vapor molecules but also to tell specific molecules apart.
"Dogs are still the gold standard for scent detection of explosives. But like a person, a dog can have a good day or a bad day, get tired or distracted," said Carl Meinhart, a professor of mechanical engineering at University of California, Santa Barbara. "We have developed a device with the same or better sensitivity as a dog's nose that feeds into a computer to report exactly what kind of molecule it's detecting."
A dog's sensitive sense of smell comes from the canine olfactory mucus layer, which absorbs and then concentrates airborne molecules. According to UC Santa Barbara, the researchers were able to replicate that by developing a device where "the underlying technology combines free-surface microfluidics and surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) to capture and identify molecules. A microscale channel of liquid absorbs and concentrates the molecules by up to six orders of magnitude. Once the vapor molecules are absorbed into the microchannel, they interact with nanoparticles that amplify their spectral signature when excited by laser light. A computer database of spectral signatures identifies what kind of molecule has been captured."
The microchannels that capture the molecules are twenty times smaller than the thickness of a human hair.
The device has already been patented and exclusively licensed to SpectraFluidics, so we may see an iteration of it out in the world soon. The researchers see it being used for not just explosive detection, but disease diagnosis, narcotics detection and even spotting spoiled food.
The devices could ultimately be just as common as smoke detectors. Watch the video below to see the device and hear more from the research team.