New electronic nose may help first responders breathe easierStamp-sized match-and-sniff sensor identifies chemical toxins
The police department in Hemet, Calif., is under siege.
In the first four months of 2010, a series of booby traps have been directed at law enforcement officers working the area, including a ballistic device strapped to a fence at the gang unit compound that sent a bullet within inches of an officer's face.
In another instance, an explosive device was attached to an unmarked police car while the officer was inside a convenience store. Four city trucks have been set ablaze, and a gas line was redirected to fill and potentially explode a police building housing an anti-drug task force.
Hemet, and other targets of domestic and foreign terrorism, might be suitable sites to deploy a new disposable, postage stamp-sized chemical sensor designed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The device can sniff out known poisonous gases and toxins and show the results simply by changing colors, making it useful in detecting accidental or deliberate release of toxic industrial chemicals.
While physicists have radiation badges to protect them in the workplace, chemists and industrial workers who handle chemicals do not have equivalent devices to monitor their exposure to potentially toxic chemicals. The researchers hope to be able to market the wearable sensor within a few years, after further miniaturization.
The technology has obvious homeland security potential.
"Currently, first responders have no inexpensive and easily carried detector that can identify a large number of toxic gases, but one can easily imagine having one of these detectors in the glove compartment of every police patrol car and fire truck," said UIUC chemistry professor Kenneth Suslick.
Suslick refers to the device as an optoelectronic nose that works by visualizing colors. Suslick told Homeland1 his colorimetric sensor array can identify 20 different toxic gases taken from the International Task Force-45 list of toxic industrial chemicals at concentrations that pose immediate danger to life and health.
"We have a disposable 36-dye sensor array that changes colors when exposed to different chemicals," he said. The pattern of the color change is a unique molecular fingerprint for any toxic gas. The pattern of colors also reveals concentration levels.
"By comparing that pattern to a library of color fingerprints, the sensor can identify and quantify TICs in a matter of seconds," Suslik said.