Big Brother Has a Nose: Nanotech Chip Replicates Dogs’ Ability To Sniff Out Explosives

By Nick Venable | 8 years ago

Remember the old days, before feline Christmas sweaters, when humans made animals do everything that was too dangerous for humans? How times have changed. I mean, I don’t even think monkeys can smoke 25 feet in front of their own trees anymore. And watch out canaries with dreams of being heroes, your time might be here soon…to live longer. Just over a week after it was announced that mine-detecting robots would be be replacing dolphins, the company SpectraFluidics has patented a chip that may one day render canine bomb detection unnecessary.

The nose knows.

Professor of mechanical engineering Carl Meinhart and professor of chemistry Martin Moskovits, both of the University of California, Santa Barbara, have combined advances in microfluidics and nanotechnology to design a device that detects and identifies certain vapor molecules at levels of up to one part per billion. That’s like recognizing someone from a satellite map of China, and there’s nothing racial implied by that sentence. And it uses a dog’s mucus layer as its influence.

The published study in Analytical Chemistry presents its evidence in the detection of 2,4-dinitrotoluene, the tell-tale vapor of TNT explosives, which dogs have been sniffing out for years. But this is a slightly less than failsafe mechanism, whereas sometimes a dog can’t stop tipping my goddamned trash can over because of the rotten chicken that may or may not exist in there.

The chip works by absorbing the molecules into a small channel of liquid, where it’s then concentrated and blasted by lasers, which then identify the molecule in its possession. Sure, that’s simplified, and the details behind microfluidics and surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy are available elsewhere, with more succinct blathering. It’s described here as well.

It’s disturbing to hear him talk about recognizing spoiled food from someone’s breath, but Meinhart also mentions “narcotics detection” in his descriptions, so there is little doubt where this technology will be headed in the future. Smoke detectors.


Image source:, Piotr Grzywocz via wikimedia.commons

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