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Campus Currents May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Sniffing Out Trouble

A tiny flake of silicon that changes color when it interacts with specific chemicals may one day detect dangerous airborne chemicals and alert emergency responders through the cell phone network. If embedded in many cell phones, the new sensor could map the location and extent of hazards like gas leaks or the deliberate release of a toxin.

It works a lot like our own sense of smell. By manipulating the shape of pores in the silicon, chemistry professor Michael Sailor’s research team can tune individual spots on the chip to respond to specific chemical traits, just like the individual sensory cells in our noses respond to specific chemical properties. The pattern of color changes across the surface of the chip will reveal the identity of the chemical, in the same way that our brain interprets the pattern of activity among sensory cells to recognize a particular smell.

Sailor is working with Rhevision, a San Diego startup company, which is developing a high-resolution, close-up, cell-phone camera lens to record the patterns on the chip. With megapixel resolution, they won’t need to wire up many individual sensors to detect a wide range of chemicals. Instead, they will only need one.

—Susan Brown