Researchers at the California Institute of Technology are developing an “electronic nose” that is capable of detecting chemical vapors.

This sensor would be interpreted by a smartphone, offering the ability to detect various forms of disease. Since smell is a form of chemical detection, the goal is to create sensors, surfaces, materials and software that are capable of distinguishing these unique signatures.

A great deal of research has already been done to create these sensors, now steps are being undertaken to integrate them with smartphones.

As intriguing as this new use for a smartphone sounds, the iMedicalApps team has previously reported on similar technologies. We have discussed NASA’s efforts to develop sniffing app, noting that 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.

We have also reported on the ability of smartphones to detect Parkinson’s disease. We noted that a patient simply has to either hold the smartphone equipped with a customized app in their hand or apply the device to their ankle for 30 seconds and then tap the screen. This allows the accelerometer of the tablet or smartphone to record movement.

The screen on most smartphones can also have multiple uses. We reported that Hyun Gyu Park and Byoung Yeon Won at the Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology in Daejeon, South Korea, are researching how a biosample – sputum, saliva, blood, or even urine – can be applied to the screen of a smartphone for analysis.

Many diseases have a distinct odor, such as tuberculosis as noted by Courtney Humphries:

“The researchers collected urine samples from more than 100 newly diagnosed TB patients in New Delhi. They analyzed molecules from the urine that evaporate quickly in the air, called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, which give a detailed readout of chemical components and their concentrations. Using this method to hunt for patterns, they identified several VOCs that occurred in significantly different concentrations in infected individuals. Using this signature, they were able to predict TB infection in another group of patients with nearly 99 percent accuracy.”

A video of the potential applications which include detecting bombs or even toxins.


There is also a correlation between nitrous oxide and lung cancer, and a sensor that allowed you to simply breathe on your phone could potentially alert a patient that they should see a specialists for more thorough tests.

Source: TechnologyReview