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What are they drinking? Text message sent

Using $100 worth of off-the-shelf electronics and sprays of alcohol, scientists sent the message 'O, Canada' a few meters across open space before it was decoded by a receiver.

Dr. Weisi Guo of the University of Warwick envisions a future where we can, if necessary, send detailed messages via puffs of perfume.
University of Warwick

When hearing that scientists in Canada and the UK have sorted out how to spray molecules of vodka to send a generic message a few meters through open space, one should be forgiven for concluding that said scientists were helping themselves to a bit of the ol' liquor cabinet in the process.

Not necessarily so. The first text to be literally (as opposed to the countless that have been figuratively) fueled by alcohol could prove to be a major step forward in the world of molecular communication, with a range of applications in environments where electromagnetic waves don't work so well -- for instance, underwater, underground, and submerged in the human body.

The transmitter: Sometimes it's OK to mix work with pleasure. PLOS ONE

Molecular communication abounds in nature, of course. Think bees spraying pheromones to warn others if there's a threat nearby. Or calcium signaling in cells, which plays a key role in, for instance, a heart beating. Shoot, even bacteria are in the game, using quorum sensing to perform such run-of-the-mill tasks as developing drug resistance.

But the researchers were hoping to take things a step further; they wanted to transmit continuous data. "Imagine sending a detailed message using perfume -- it sounds like something from a spy thriller novel, but in reality it is an incredibly simple way to communicate," Dr. Weisi Guo of the University of Warwick in the UK said in a school news release. "Of course people have achieved short-ranged signaling using chemicals, but we have gone to the next level and successfully communicated continuous and generic messages over several meters."

To do this, the team from Warwick and York University in Toronto first turned a generic message -- in this case "O, Canada" -- into binary signals. (One wonders whether Team Canada won a drinking bet.) Reporting in the journal PLOS ONE, they say they encoded the alphabet using a single spray of alcohol to represent bit 1 and no spray to represent bit 0. It really is, they say, that simple.

Still, Guo makes a point in the report that molecular communication won't replace electromagnetic waves, which will continue to transmit the vast majority of data. But chemical signals could prove more practical and efficient in certain scenarios. In nanomedicine, for instance, scientists are injecting mini robots and sensors to perform specific tasks, but when relying on electromagnetic signals, they run up against the issue of antenna size, which would be moot here. Chemicals could also monitor hard-to-reach systems and help prevent events like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 or the bus-size group of fat cells that clogged the London sewage networks earlier this year.

Guo describes this as a way to monitor the "health of structures and processes." Because the signals are biocompatible and use minimal energy, they may ultimately prove far more game-changing than "O, Canada" sprayed a few meters through space -- as exciting as that may be for our dear Canadian readers.

The team is already working on starting a company to bring the tech to market. Oh to be a fly on the wall behind the bartender at that launch party.