Smartphone Sensor that Detects Hazardous Gases

We may soon be able to use a smartphone to check for hazardous chemicals or spoiled foods.

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have demonstrated a new, inexpensive sensor that uses no wiring and little power, which can detect gases such as hydrogen peroxide, gaseous ammonia and cyclohexanone.

Potentially, it could detect anything from environmental pollutants to explosives, through to dangerous gas levels within manufacturing plants. It also has the potential to make it easier to screen public places or detect spoilt food in warehouses.

A distinctive feature of this technology is its ability to gather chemical information from non-line-of-sight places, such as through solid walls or through opaque boxes. This means that the person using the sensor does not have to come into direct contact with a targeted chemical.

How does it work?

The wireless chemical sensor has an embedded nanomaterial that can interact with a specified chemical. The interaction leads to a change in the communication between the phone and the sensor. MIT researchers are combining near field and communication technology that comes already embedded in modern smartphones with wireless chemical sensors.

The process begins by cutting a hole in the circuit of the radio frequency ID tag. A special pencil is used, one where the graphite has been replaced with a carbon nanotube-based material, to draw a wire to recomplete the circuit. Then they program the drawn wire to detect a specific chemical. Due to the electrical behaviour of the pencil material, the current over the wire changes when in the presence of that chemical. When reading the sensor with a smartphone, it signals whether the chemical is present or not.

The new sensors require little power and function at ambient temperatures, making them suitable for a wide range of environments or in a variety of devices.

At this stage, only one gas per sensor is detectable, and the smartphone must be within 5 centimetres to get a reading but in the future, there may be ways to integrate Bluetooth technology in order to expand the range beyond this 5-centimetre range.

After the smartphone receives the information, by uploading it to a wireless network and combining data from other phones, coverage of larger areas may be achievable.

Safety considerations

This technology has huge potential for safely identifying hazardous chemicals. The researchers have filed a patent for this technology as they continue to explore potential applications for their exciting sensor.

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