App allows smartphones to ‘smell’

By ERIC JOONDEPH/Montana State News

A potentially life-saving chemical detecting smartphone app is set to launch soon.

Chemical engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are designing a smartphone app that could be capable of detecting hazardous gases from sources such as spoiling foods or environmental gases.

The sensors are going to be sent out across the country and can be used to sense harmful gases in public places, warehouses, or businesses offices. They even contain readable barcodes that can track pollutants from vehicles.

According to MIT news, researchers have demonstrated that they can detect gaseous ammonia, hydrogen peroxide, cyclohexane, and many other gases, while using this app.

“The beauty of these sensors is that they are really cheap. You put them up, they sit there, and then you come around and read them. There’s no wiring involved. There’s no power,” said Timothy Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry at MIT.

The sensors in this new app are called near-field communication tags (NFC). Smartphones that are NFC compatible send out magnetic field pulses and this magnetic field creates an electric current on the tag that the phones detect and analyze.

The sensors were tested with ammonia, cyclohexane and hydrogen peroxide. It was found that the tags could sense the substances at levels of a few parts per million. Adding links in order to make the app even more accurate developed this technology further.

According to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, while designing the application, carbon nanotube links were added to the circuit. Each link responds to one particular gas, by changing how the nanotubes conduct electricity. Through sensing the change in the electric current on the tag, the smartphone signals that it has detected the gas in question.

This technology could be potentially groundbreaking in some cases, and lifesaving- in terms of sensing gases that are most times undetectable by the average human’s nose.

Although this is technologically groundbreaking, more work needs to be done in order to improve the range capability of this app.

Currently, each sensor is only able to detect one gas and in order to detect gases the smartphone must be held within about 5 cm. of these pollutants in order to pick up a reading. However, once this app is developed further, businesses, the average person and many others could benefit greatly from usage.

At the moment, these sensors are being geared towards international traders and large corporations. Companies that ship perishable food items, own large factories, and even airline companies, would benefit from knowing what hazardous gases were in the air in order to save their inventory, employees, and customers alike.

– Edited by Lauren Shun

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