24 June 2013

Artificial nose matches human sense of smell

Nose

Chemical engineers in South Korea have successfully created an artificial nose with a sense of smell comparable to a highly trained human expert’s nose.

The nose, called a nanobioelectronic nose (nbe-nose), was able to detect smells at concentrations of as low as 0.02 parts-per-trillion (ppt) – equivalent to human levels. The nbe-nose was also able to detect odours in gas form, which more closely mimics how the human nose works.

Mimicking the human sense of smell, or olfaction, has a wide variety of current and potential benefits including health, security and environmental.

Currently, ‘artificial noses’ are used in laboratories and industry to monitor quality control and prevent problems such as contamination and spoilage.

Exciting potential uses in the future include the detection of dangerous and harmful bacteria such as MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus); the detection of lung cancer or other medical conditions; nasal implants to help warn of the presence of natural gas for people with a weak sense of smell; as a bomb detection method in airports; and for environmental protection.

The nbe-nose was developed by chemical engineers at Seoul National University and Hongik University in the Republic of Korea1. Although it is not fully understood how odour detection works in people, they are confident the nbe-nose demonstrates several similar characteristics to the way humans detect smells.

The Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) chief executive, David Brown, said: “Steady progress has been made in this field by chemical engineers over the past decade and this research is very encouraging.

“The practical applications of ‘artificial noses’ are potentially very exciting. Lung cancer is the most common cancer in the world and kills around 1.5 million people each year. Early detection for many diseases like lung cancer is vital and it is clear that chemical engineers can make a major contribution to improved health and wellbeing with exciting innovations like the nbe-nose”.

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