Researchers at UCSB recently created a device that can detect and differentiate between explosives, pollutants and various airborne chemicals via a microfluidic nanotechnology that mimics the mechanism behind canine chemo sensation.

The portable vapor-distinguishing “Trace Chemical Vapor Detection Cartridge” is patented by SpectraFluidics, a Santa Barbara-based company that aims to use the device to improve security, food and research industries.

Martin Moskovits, a UCSB professor of chemistry and one of the head designers of the nanotech nose, said that the invention imitates canine receptors through using silver particles in lieu of mucus membrane sensors.

“Dogs bring molecules from the environment to scent receptors in the nose and they gather these particles in their mucus membrane. The sinus is used to allure those particles to be exposed to toxins, pollutants and contaminants in the atmosphere. When enough have gathered up, a scent forms,” Moskovits said. “Many years ago we discovered a molecule that binds to silver and the silver clumps together to form little particles. At the end of the voyage a light shines on the particles and tells you what is in the air.”

Dogs, which concentrate airborne molecules in their olfactory mucus layer to register scents, use a portion of their brain 40 times larger than that of humans to analyze smells. Scientists estimate that dogs can smell anywhere between 1,000 to 10,000 times better than humans can.

According to Phil Strong, CEO of SpectraFluidics, the chip’s sensitivity and accuracy surpasses canine smell recognition, allowing the instrument to pinpoint exactly what vapors are in the environment and convey the information to a computer.

“A key advantage is that we are much more specific. We can actually look at chemicals and at what the bond structure is and tell you exactly what we are working with,” Strong said. “A dog, on the other hand, is a bit more based on patent recognition. They are not going to tell you exactly what is in there. It is not specific. It can tell you if there is a threat. Our technology can tell you what it is.”

Explosive-detection canines must pass a 10-week training program before they can be used by the TSA. Canine care poses a disadvantage compared to the nanotech nose technology in that they require food, sleep and attention.

Strong said that the device might also have future implications in the food and medical industries.

“On the food side, something like 80 percent of the fish we eat is imported and a lot of it is from where controls are not that great and we can smell if there are antibiotics in there,” Strong said. “In the medical space, there are trials where dog are sniffing out cancer on people’s breath. They are cueing to certain chemicals that are tied to certain maladies and cancers.”

SpectraFluidics plans to market their chemical vapor detection chip to security, food, and medical industries. Moskovits assures that the invention is aimed to enhance safety but not to replace companions.

“It may exceed canine smelling abilities, but it is no replacement for man’s best friend.”


A version of this article appeared on page 5 of April 16th, 2013’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.

Photo courtesy of UCSB Institute for Collaborative Biotechnology.

A concept illustration of the microfluidic channel. The nanoparticles are sensed by a laser beam, which then amplifies the spectral signature of the molecules it detects. This device is capable of detecting explosives, as well as narcotics and even spoiled food.