Smartphones could soon be personal air pollution detectors

la smog
CC BY-NC 2.0 Ben Amstutz

For a few years now, the idea of smartphones becoming full of environmental sensors has been floating around. Researchers have been working to develop sensors small and sensitive enough to be incorporated into our phones for measuring air quality, outside temperature and more. So far, these developments have remained in the lab and not in our phones, but a new breakthrough from researchers in Australia may mean that we'll have this data at our fingertips sooner than later.

A team from RMIT University's Centre for Advanced Electronics and Sensors has developed what they're calling "the first low-cost and reliable method of detecting nitrogen dioxide (NO2)" and it could soon be used in smartphones. NO2 is the pollutant that causes smog and contributes to over 7 million deaths a year, according to the World Health Organization. The gas can cause respiratory diseases and complications in both the very young and old.

The primary source of NO2 pollution is the burning of fossil fuels, especially by coal-fired power plants and diesel engine cars, like those in the Volkswagen emissions-gate scandal.

The researchers wanted to find a way to reduce the negative impacts of NO2 pollution and knew that access to a sensitive and reliable detection system could prevent unnecessary exposure and improve people's health.

The sensor that they developed uses microscopic flakes of tin disulphide -- a yellow-brown pigment often used in varnish -- to detect the presence of NO2. Tin disulphide has a high affinity to nitrogen dioxide, which makes it selectively absorb those molecules. The researcher say that the sensor is better at detecting NO2 than any technology on the market today and detects the gas at a sensitivity greater than the EPA's acceptable levels.

“The revolutionary method we’ve developed is a great start to creating a handheld, low-cost and personalised NO2 sensor that can even be incorporated into smartphones,” Professor Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh said.

“Not only would it improve the quality of millions of people’s lives, but it would also help avoid illness caused by nitrogen dioxide poisoning and potentially even death.”

Now that we have these sensors, it's time for smartphone-makers to start incorporating them into phones. This type of monitoring would fit in quite nicely with Apple's HealthKit software.

Smartphones could soon be personal air pollution detectors
New technology out of Australia is getting us closer to having this tool in our pocket.

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