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Surprising Science

What’s That Smell? Smartphones May Soon Find Out

A nanotech “electronic nose” is being tested with small devices to allow detection of airborne toxins before they can harm living beings.

Article written by guest writer Kecia Lynn

What’s the Latest Development?

Continuing on the theme of Safer Living Through Technology, University of California-Riverside researchers have designed a prototype for a sensor that can “smell” airborne toxins via the use of “functionalized carbon nanotubes” that detect substances “down to the parts per billion level.” The latest version of what’s being labeled an “electronic nose” will be paired with GPS and Bluetooth capabilities so that it can be synced with a smartphone. Currently sized at 4 by 7 inches, developers are working to make it smaller: A credit card-sized multi-channel sensor could detect up to eight toxins. They are also looking to see if, in addition to GPS and Bluetooth, adding wi-fi might be valuable.

What’s the Big Idea?

As cool as it sounds to be able to correlate that tantalizing whiff of pepperoni with the pizzeria around the corner, the electronic nose isn’t targeted towards the casual user just yet. Because researchers’ current focus is on finding potentially dangerous substances (sidestepping any perceived pepperoni dangers for now), the device is being evaluated for use in industrial, security, and military applications, among others.

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