Jing Li, a scientist working at NASA Ames (@nasaames), has been developing a smartphone peripheral, or lab on a chip, with 32 nanosensor bars that are capable of “smelling” just about anything. Seriously. Each sensor bar is composed of a different nano-structure material, and as a result each responds to different chemicals in different ways, enabling the chip to not only differentiate between different chemicals, but also to monitor their relative levels in real-time.

“I was looking for the opportunity to apply nanotechnology to the electronic nose to improve its chemical analysis performance, when I realized NASA Ames had an impressive national reputation for initiative and leadership in nanotechnology,” Li explained in a feature on the NASA Ames website.

NASA originally developed the chip for space applications, the first usage was monitoring for fuel leaks around launch vehicles. The device has been used on the International Space Station since 2008, monitoring air-quality and checking for formaldehyde in the air. The Department of Homeland Security is now funding the development of the chip for use by consumers, and the Department of Defense is funding use of the sensor to alert soldiers when there is a chemical threat.

The device is clearly designed to fit onto an iPhone, though, for legal reasons, NASA won’t confirm with which device it is meant to be used. The chip only draws 5 milliwatts, thus having minimal impact on battery life. It’s primarily being developed to monitor carbon monoxide as well as chlorine, ammonia, and methane in your home.

Medical applications for the device are numerous. It has been shown, for instance, that there is a direct correlation between the level of acetone in the breath and the level of sugar in the blood, so it could be used as a non-invasive blood glucose monitor. There is also a correlation between nitrous oxide and lung cancer, simply breathe on your phone and get an alert that you should see a specialists for more thorough tests.

We have written about similar lab on a chip sensor devices developed by the Human++ program at imec in Europe, which use an array of chemical sensors each of which is sensitive to many volatiles in their own specific way so that the combination of their responses results in an ‘odor footprint’.

Imagine a smartphone app that could tell you if you have bad breath before a big date. Something tells me that would be a very popular app and potentially a decent business opportunity.

(Hat Tip to Gizmodo)