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David Bradley ISSUE #72
January 2008
Luis Velasquez-Garcia (left) and Akintunde Ibitayo Akinwande are developing a tiny sensor for hazardous gases (Photo: Donna Coveney)
Small and Sensitive

A tiny prototype sensor device that can quickly sniff out minute quantities of hazardous gases, including toxic industrial chemicals and chemical warfare agents, is being developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The device combines gas chromatography and mass spectrometry in systems the size of a computer mouse.

Scaling down gas detectors makes them much easier to use in a real-world environment, where they could be deployed throughout a building or around an outdoor area. Making the devices small also reduces the amount of power they consume and enhances their sensitivity to trace amounts of gases. Current versions of portable GC-MS machines take about 15 minutes to produce results are bulky like a stuffed grocery bag and using about 10,000 joules of energy. The new, smaller version consumes just a few Joules (about 4 J) and produces results in about four seconds.

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"Everything we're doing has been done on a macro scale", says Akintunde Ibitayo Akinwande, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science. "We are just scaling it down." Working with Luis Velasquez-Garcia, Akinwande hopes to eventually reduce the size of their detector still further, to about the size of a matchbox.

The device once past the developmental stage, which will last another two years or so, could be used to help protect water supplies or for medical diagnostics, as well as to detect hazardous gases in the air in industry and elsewhere.