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How your cell phone could protect you from a deadly chemical attack

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The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is developing a smartphone application that could warn users of hazardous substances.

Sure, a smartphone can take photos, automatically update email messages, stream live video and even provide directions to the nearest gas station. But is a smartphone smart enough to save a life?

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, through its Science and Technology Directorate, is developing a smartphone application that could one day protect users from a deadly chemical attack. With a cost of $1 per sensor, the Cell-All would equip a cell phone with a sensor meant to detect hazardous substances.

"Our goal is to create a lightweight, cost-effective, power-efficient solution," said Cell-All program manager Stephen Dennis.

While the cell phone user goes about her day, the Cell-All sensor "sniffs" the air for certain volatile chemical compounds. If a personal safety threat is detected -- for example, a chlorine gas leak -- the user would receive a warning via noise, vibration, text message or phone call.

But if the threat detected is more serious with broader safety implications -- such as a sarin gas attack -- the time, location and compound name would be sent to an emergency operations center within 60 seconds. The automatic system would minimize human error and get emergency responders to the scene fast, officials said.

To quell privacy concerns, the department said the sensor would only operate on an opt-in basis and that data would be transmitted anonymously. "Privacy is as important as technology," Dennis said. "After all, for Cell-All to succeed, people must be comfortable enough to turn it on in the first place."

The commercial availability of Cell-All could take several years, officials said. In the meantime, the department is pursuing agreements with four cell phone manufacturers -- Qualcomm, LG, Apple and Samsung -- that could accelerate the sensor's commercialization. Within a year, officials said, 40 prototypes could be developed, including some that sense carbon monoxide and fire.

Image: Paul Wedig / U.S. Department of Homeland Security

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure