What if you could use your phone to test the air for toxins? What if you could monitor your health simply by blowing on it? Sounds amazing, right? Nanosensor technology developed by NASA Ames is going to make that a reality.
Jing Li, a scientist at NASA Ames, has been working for years on what will be the greatest phone accessory of all time. It’s a small chip (about the size of a postage stamp) that houses 32 nanosensor bars. Each bar is composed of a different nano-structure material. Because each sensor bar is unique it can respond to different chemicals in different ways, enabling it to not only differentiate between them, but also to monitor their relative levels, in real time.
In its current state (which is looking mighty close to production-ready), it’s housed in a small case that attaches to a smartphone. For legal reasons they wouldn’t say which smartphone it’s built to attach to, but you can probably guess. Eventually, it will be built to attach to many other popular models. The idea is to develop a low-cost version so that consumers can afford to have them for health and safety applications. But let’s back up a second.
This nanosensor technology was originally developed by NASA Ames for space applications. This is NASA, after all. The first usage was monitoring for fuel leaks around launch vehicles. They’ve been on the International Space Station since 2008, monitoring air-quality and checking for formaldehyde in the air. Future applications could include taking samples on asteroids and Mars missions. So that’s where it started, but the Department of Homeland Security is now funding this project in order to bring it back down to earth—and to consumers.
There are certainly military applications (the Department of Defense is funding an implementation where soldiers could wear these to alert them of chemical threats), but the cellphone implementation is aimed squarely at consumers. The chip only draws 5 milliwatts, which means very little battery-drain (the smartphone they tested it with can use the sensor for 8 continuous hours on a single charge). It’s primarily being developed to monitor carbon monoxide as well as chlorine, ammonia, and methane in your home.But these things could really be used anywhere because they’re so small. An app could automatically send data back to the Department of Homeland Security or other emergency services agencies, which would give them a big-picture look at a larger area—and let them know if a mass evacuation is needed.
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