We've grown accustomed to devices that can see better than the human eye – from binocular telescopes to electron microscopes – but now technology is moving on to the human nose. In fact, a new electronic nose, from Florida-based iSense, can not only better the human sense of smell, it can leave even specially trained bloodhounds in the dust. About the size of a mobile phone, the new eNose analyzes puffs of air Breathalyzer-style, to detect everything from spoiled food to cancer in its earliest stages.
In simplest terms, the device mimics what a nose does naturally, using sophisticated sensors and pH indicators to read the chemical compounds in the air and recognize an odor's distinctive scent signature. The eNose makes odors visible through a pattern of 36 dots, small enough to fit on a fingernail, which change color in response to various chemicals. The resulting visual pattern is recorded by the device’s camera and can be immediately analyzed.
The eNose is sensitive enough to detect the chemical by-products of early-stage cancer cells (which give off “a distinct odor undetectable by humans”). Preliminary results of a study conducted by the Cleveland Clinic suggest that the iSense device can correctly diagnose early-stage lung cancer in three out of four patients. Other health conditions that might be put to the smell test include pulmonary disease, diabetes and kidney disease.
The device could also be used to recognize faint levels of toxic chemicals (as an early-alert system for factory workers in potentially toxic environments, say) or to check foods and beverages for signs of harmful pathogens or spoilage before they reach consumers. Manufacturers could also use it to assure product consistency (the chemical fingerprint of each batch could be checked to match a pre-set standard).
iSense expects to release the eNose commercially – initially as a medical-diagnostic device, with other uses to follow – in early 2011.