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Tiny sensors can sniff out airborne toxins

Tiny sensors can sniff out airborne toxins

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California researchers have created a tiny silicon chip that can sniff out chemical toxins in the air. The sensors could rig your cell phone with the ability to detect the chemical leaks and help experts map out the disaster in real time.

Researchers want to embed your cell phone with tiny silicon chips that can sniff out chemical hazards.

The sensors have been designed to work like our nose. For instance, it could smell if there is a deadly carbon monoxide gas leak nearby. Additionally, the sensors would be hooked into the cell phone network, so emergency responders could respond immediately. 

Michael Sailor, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego, wants to tap the ubiquitous use of cells phones.

Imagine if all cell phones had the chemical sniffing sensors, researchers could use the information to map airborne toxins as they spread.

Sailor explains:

"We have a set of sensory cells that detect specific chemical properties. It's the pattern of activation across the array of sensors that the brain recognizes as a particular smell. In the same way, the pattern of color changes across the surface of the chip will reveal the identity of the chemical."

For instance, the sensor can tell if the air is filled with toluene, an additive in gasoline. The sensor would change a certain color when toluene is detected.

Thanks to the megapixel resolution in cell phone cameras, researchers can look at millions of individual sensors at once. Startup company, Rhevision, makes the lens with fluid, so it can behave more like an animal’s eye than an actual camera lens.

Sailor adds:

"We only need one. This greatly simplifies the manufacturing process because it allows us to piggyback on all the technology development that has gone into making cell phone cameras lighter, smaller, and cheaper."

The recent deadly cool mining accident is a reminder that a build up of explosive gases is often fatal. The tiny sensors developed by the California researchers could help make the miners more aware of the chemical danger. But before anyone can use these sensors, the scientists must first expand the sensor’s sniffing range before this device can detect many of the common airborne hazards lingering in the air.

In general, chemical sensors might strengthen homeland security by providing a more advanced detection system. The U.S. Navy has put in $786,000 more funding into a company called Ionfinity (the security technology part of Viaspace), who is manufacturing a sniffing sensor device. Ionfinity's sensor system can detect trace chemicals as low as parts per billion in just 5 seconds.

The applications of chemical sensors are limitless: They can identify explosives, toxic gases, environmental toxins, chemical or biological weapons, and drugs.

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Credit: Sailor Lab/UCSD

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Boonsri Dickinson

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Boonsri Dickinson is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has written for Discover, The Huffington Post, Forbes, Nature Biotech, Technewsdaily.com, Techstartups.com and AOL. She's currently a reporter for Business Insider. She holds degrees from the University of Florida and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure