While not yet available to the public, researchers at NASA Ames Research Center have created the equivalent of an "electronic nose" — a sensor chip that uses carbon nano-tube technology to detect various toxics. Last week it won NASA's Government Invention of the Year Award and has already been used on the International Space Station to detect toxics, an ongoing problem for humans confined to spacecraft.
A prototype seen in a NASA Ames lab plugs onto the end of an iPhone, and could sell for around $35, said Jing Li, research scientist and lead investigator. The unique component, the tiny sensor chip, would cost "less than a penny" to mass produce, Li said.
"This technology can monitor the hazardous materials in the air," Li said. "That will impact human quality of life, I think that's very important."
Several companies have expressed interest in taking the chip into production, including a Mountain View company that seeks to place the sensors around buildings and use the GPS signal in the sensor to map levels of toxics in indoor air over a WiFi network, Li said.
The list of possible uses is almost endless. The sensor could sniff out diseases by detecting chemical markers on a person's breath that correspond to ailments such as high blood sugar or lung cancer, Li said. Industries that use or store gases could detect leaks. The department of Homeland Security wants to use the technology to detect chemicals used in what Li called a "hazardous event" or attack on the United States. The Transportation Safety Administration also wants to use the technology to detect explosives at airports, Li said.
Not surprisingly, Li says her work is well-funded.
"With this invention, our people have basically created the insides of a tricorder," said Peter Worden, director of NASA Ames, referring to the fictional device used in Star Trek. "And based on the uses we've already demonstrated, I can't wait to see the fantastic applications that NASA and industry are going to devise for it."
The chip's main innovation is the carbon nano-tube technology. While microscopic in size, the nano-tubes are porous enough to allow a large surface area for air sampling. It takes about six months of work to make the chip sense a new gas, Li said, and so far the chip can measure formaldehyde, ammonia, chlorine and carbon monoxide, among others.
Calling it an "electronic nose," Li described the comb-like sensor as "an array of sensors, each one is different." She likened them to neurons in the human nose which "send a signal back to your brain" because it caught "a picture or pattern. You recognize the different patterns when your nose smells."
The chip has yet to be developed to detect the carcinogen TCE (trichloroethylene), though Li and her fellow researchers are housed in a building over a massive TCE plume, part of a Superfund site at Moffett Field. Some NASA Ames buildings have been found with TCE vapor levels inside above EPA limits, according to EPA reports.
The cell phone could not be demonstrated for this story as the researchers had let their application license with Apple expire. Li expressed some regret at using an iPhone to develop the prototype because of difficult restrictions placed on application development by Apple after work began. Android phones had not been developed far enough when the work began in 2008, she said.
According to NASA, there will be royalties from agreements to use the technology for Li and her fellow researchers, the University of California's Yijiang Lu and NASA's Meyya Meyyappan. NASA itself will receive royalties as well, though exactly how much was not disclosed.
Companies interested in using the technology may contact the Technology Partnerships Division at NASA Ames.