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Electronic nose detects harmful airborne substances

Researchers say their device, which includes a computer chip, USB ports, and temperature and humidity sensors, will be the size of a credit card.

After spending eight years developing a tiny sensor that can sniff out a variety of airborne substances, a chemical engineering professor is working with a company to bring the resulting prototype -- a so-called "electronic nose" -- to market.

Nosang Myung holds the prototype device alongside a smartphone. UC Riverside

The tech could be used in a wide range of settings, including industrial sites to detect gas leaks, agriculture to detect pesticide levels, and the military to detect chemical warfare agents.

Developed by Nano Engineered Applications, the prototype includes a computer chip, USB ports, and temperature and humidity sensors and is just the first in a series of similar devices. Version 2.0, expected to debut in just a month, will sync with a smartphone via Bluetooth and will include GPS.

At roughly 4-by-8 inches, the device uses a multi-channel nanosensor array that engineering prof Nosang Myung at the University of California Riverside built using carbon nanotubes. It can detect up to eight toxins in very trace amounts -- down to the parts per billion.

The company wants to get the gadget down to the size of a credit card, at which point it could be not only handheld but also wearable and ultimately integrated into smartphones.

While the electronic nose will likely be used on the industrial side to monitor emissions and toxins, if the price is right it will probably find its way into the layperson's smartphone as well. Think about all the germaphobes boarding airplanes and nervous new parents wanting to keep their babies safe. After all, how smart are smartphones if they can't sniff out danger, too?