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Smartphone sensor detects hazardous gases

10 December, 2014

Researchers have devised a new sensor which can transmit information on hazardous chemicals or food spoilage to a smartphone.

These inexpensive sensors, described in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could be widely deployed, making it easier to monitor public spaces or detect food spoilage in warehouses.

Using this system, the researchers have demonstrated they can detect gases such as gaseous ammonia, hydrogen peroxide, and cyclohexanone.

"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 paper's senior author, and John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

"You can get quite imaginative as to what you might want to do with a technology like this."

Versatile gas detection

For several years, Swager's lab has been developing gas-detecting sensors based on devices known as chemiresistors, which consist of simple electrical circuits modified so that their resistance changes when exposed to a particular chemical. Measuring that change in resistance reveals whether the target gas is present.

Unlike commercially available chemiresistors, the sensors developed in Swager's lab require almost no energy and can function at ambient temperatures.

"This would allow us to put sensors in many different environments or in many different devices," Swager said.

The new sensors are made from modified near-field communication (NFC) tags. These tags, which receive the little power they need from the device reading them, function as wirelessly addressable barcodes and are mainly used for tracking products such as cars or pharmaceuticals as they move through a supply chain, such as in a manufacturing plant or warehouse.

NFC tags can be read by any smartphone that has near-field communication capability, which is included in many newer smartphone models.

To adapt these tags for their own purposes, the MIT team first disrupted the electronic circuit by punching a hole in it. Then, they reconnected the circuit with a linker made of carbon nanotubes, specialised to detect a particular gas. In this case, the researchers added the carbon nanotubes by "drawing" them onto the tag with a mechanical pencil they first created in 2012, in which the usual pencil lead is replaced with a compressed powder of carbon nanotubes. The team refers to the modified tags as 'chemically actuated resonant devices', or CARDs.

When carbon nanotubes bind to the target gas, their ability to conduct electricity changes, which shifts the radio frequencies at which power can be transferred to the device. When a smartphone pings the CARD, the CARD responds only if it can receive sufficient power at the smartphone-transmitted radio frequencies, allowing the phone to determine whether the circuit has been altered and the gas is present.

Current versions of the CARDs can each detect only one type of gas, but a phone can read multiple CARDs to get input on many different gases, down to concentrations of parts per million.

With the current version of the technology, the phone must be within five centimetres of the CARD to get a reading, but the US team is currently working with Bluetooth technology to expand the range.

Widespread deployment

The researchers have filed for a patent on the sensing technology and are now looking into possible applications.

Because these devices are so inexpensive and can be read by smartphones, they could be deployed nearly anywhere – indoors to detect explosives and other harmful gases, or outdoors to monitor environmental pollutants.

Once an individual phone gathers data, the information may be uploaded to wireless networks and combined with sensor data from other phones, allowing coverage of very large areas, Swager said.

The researchers are also pursuing the possibility of integrating the CARDs into "smart packaging" that would allow people to detect possible food spoilage or contamination of products.

Swager's lab had previously developed sensors that could detect ethylene, a gas that signals ripeness in fruit.

Wolfgang Knoll, a managing director of the Austrian Institute of Technology, said: "Avoiding food waste currently is a very hot topic.

"However, it requires cheap, easy-to-use, and reliable sensors for chemicals, e.g. metabolites such as ammonia that could indicate the quality of raw food or the status of prepared meals.

"The concept presented in this paper could lead to a solution for a long-lasting need in food quality control."

The CARDs could also be incorporated into dosimeters to help monitor worker safety in manufacturing plants by measuring how much gas the workers are exposed to.

Joseph Azzarelli, the paper's lead author said: "Since it's low-cost, disposable, and can easily interface with a phone, we think it could be the type of device that someone could wear as a badge, and they could ping it when they check in the morning and then ping it again when they check out at night."

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