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One Step Closer to a Fully Functional Electronic Nose

16 June 2016

Your breath contains gases from your stomach that come out of your blood when in contact with the air in your lungs. Because breath contains information about nearly every part of a human’s body, a breath test can be considered a blood test without the blood samples.
Currently there are devices on the market than can conduct breath analysis using compound semiconductors. These devices tend to be bulky and too expensive for commercial use.

Researchers at the Texas Analog Center of Excellence (TxACE) at UT Dallas are now working to develop an affordable “electronic nose” that can be used in breath analysis for a variety of health diagnoses.

The research team, led by Dr. Kenneth O, one of the principal investigators of the effort and director of TxACE, determined that using CMOS integrated circuits technology will make electronic noses more affordable.

Researchers determined that using integrated circuits, including one shown right of the US quarter and below the label "CHIP1" in an electronic nose, will make the device more affordable. (Image Credit: UT Dallas) Researchers determined that using integrated circuits, including one shown right of the US quarter and below the label "CHIP1" in an electronic nose, will make the device more affordable. (Image Credit: UT Dallas)

CMOS is the integrated circuits technology that is used to manufacture the bulk of electronics that make smartphones, tablets and other devices possible.

"Smell is one of the senses of humans and animals, and there have been many efforts to build an electronic nose," said Dr. Navneet Sharma, the lead author of the paper, who recently defended his doctoral thesis at UT Dallas. "We have demonstrated that you can build an affordable electronic nose that can sense many different kinds of smells. When you're smelling something, you are detecting chemical molecules in the air. Similarly an electronic nose detects chemical compounds using rotational spectroscopy."

The rotational spectrometer creates and relays electromagnetic waves over a wide range of frequencies, and analyzes how the waves are weakened to determine what chemicals are present as well as their concentrations in a sample. The system can detect low levels of chemicals present in human breath.

The electronic nose can detect gas molecules much better than a Breathalyzer, which can confuse acetone for ethanol in the breath. The distinction is important because, for example, patients with Type 1 diabetes have high concentrations of acetone in their breath.

"If you think about the industry around sensors that emulate our senses, it's huge," said Dr. O. "Imaging applications, hearing devices, touch sensors—what we are talking about here is developing a device that imitates another one of our sensing modalities and making it affordable and widely available. The possible use of the electronic nose is almost limitless. Think about how we use smell in our daily lives."

The researchers predict that CMOS-based devices could be used first in industrial settings and then in doctors' offices and hospitals. As the technology advances, the devices could even become household devices. According to Dr. O, the devices would reduce the need for blood work and gastrointestinal tests, could detect diseases earlier, and could lower healthcare costs.

Currently the team is building a prototype programmable electronic nose that should be made available for beta testing by early 2018.

"SRC and its members, including Texas Instruments, Intel, IBM, Freescale, Mentor Graphics, ARM and GlobalFoundries, have been following this work for several years. We are excited by the possibilities of the new technology and are working to rapidly explore its uses and applications," said Dr. David Yeh, SRC senior director. "It is a significant milestone, but there is still much more research needed for this to reach its potential."

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