• NASA Scientist Makes a Chemical Sensor out of an iPhone

    A NASA scientist has come up with a working prototype of chemical-sniffing circuitry as a test of technology that could one day become standard equipment on cell phones in the US. The sensing device attaches to the bottom of an iPhone and uses the data connection to collect, process and report the results.

    Jing Li, a physical scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in California developed this prototype as a proof of concept of new technology that would bring compact, low-cost, low-power, high-speed nanosensor-based chemical sensing capabilities to cell phones. Li worked with other researchers under a grant from the "Cell-All" program of the US Department of Homeland Security to develop tools that would better enable the government to quickly respond in case of a chemical release or terror attack.

    The circuitry the team came up with is about the size of a postage stamp and plugs into an iPhone's dock port. It's able to detect and identify low concentrations of ammonia, chlorine gas and methane using something called a "sample jet" and a multiple-channel silicon-based sensing chip, which consists of 16 nanosensors. The phone processes the data, stores it, and can send detection data to another phone or a computer using either the 3G or WiFi data network.

    The Cell-All program "is designed to provide greater detection capabilities in areas where people congregate," according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate.
    The concept allows for chemical agent detectors to ultimately be everywhere where there are cellular telephones. At the option of the cell phone owner, the GPS in the phone could provide sensor location information to emergency operation centers.
    While the technology is years away from widespread implementation, it's another indication that cell phones are spreading the ubiquity of surveillance tools. Along with the ability to remotely turn on a cell's microphone without the user being aware, any future sensing tools built into mobile phones offer both powerful tools for law enforcement, and potential dangers to privacy.

    image via NASA
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