A rosy future for electronic noses
The detection of odours, in settings outside the laboratory, has usually required a trained mammalian nose. Human sensory panels appraise food and drinks, sniffer dogs spot traces of narcotics and giant rats can detect TNT explosives in buried landmines. But human assessors can be expensive and slow, and there are situations where animal noses can’t be used. Electronic noses, (e-noses), are instruments that, like the human nose, recognize odours. Due to continuing improvements in gas sensor technologies, and falling manufacturing costs, the market for e-noses is set to grow.
Research and Markets predict that the digital scent technology market, where the hardware is comprised of e-noses and scent synthesizers, may reach around $700 million by 2020, with a CAGR of up to 30% between 2014 and 2020. Key growth areas are envisaged in several markets: military and defence; environmental monitoring; healthcare; and food and beverage.
In food and beverage, the e-Nose can not only replace the human nose it can also out-perform it. Whilst the industry routinely employs sensory panelists for product evaluation, human olfaction has limitations. Humans can identify only a maximum of four components in any mixture dependent on the blend of chemicals present. Additionally, continual inhalation of many volatiles leads to olfactory fatigue. Unsurprisingly therefore, e-noses are being developed for food and beverage applications. One example is French company, Alpha MOS, which sells an ultra-fast chromatography instrument for the quality control of aroma. It can record changes in flavor volatiles during product aging, and is also useful for those distasteful tasks of sensory evaluation like rancidity detection and off-odour identification.
Outside of the obvious market of food & drink, the commercial applications of e-noses are diverse. For example, within the areas of military and defense, spin-out of the University of Utah ,Vaporsens, is developing nanofiber sensors to detect chemicals associated with explosives including ammonia and peroxides. It plans to release a sensitive, handheld device in late 2016. Companies like Intelesens, RoboScientific and eNose are targeting the medical diagnostics market. Non-invasive methods for detecting cancer and tuberculosis by e-nose analysis of exhaled breath promises to be both fast and low-cost.
In food and beverage, the e-nose can not only replace the human nose it can also out-perform it. Outside of the obvious market of food & drink, the commercial applications of e-noses are diverse.
Inevitably in our world of consumer control through smartphones and apps, the e-Nose is also entering the consumer market. The Peres’ e-nose from ARS Lab Ltd, the FOODsniffer, measures the freshness of raw meat, poultry, and fish using sensors to detect ammonia and volatiles released during food spoilage. This gadget aims to reduce the incidence of food poisoning. Aryballe Technologies’ NeOse device, launching in 2016, will recognize a wide spectrum of different odors and link to your smartphone. It uses Surface Plasmon Resonance imaging technology to detect the binding of odor molecules to biochemical receptors. A related instrument is being developed by startup CDx Inc, for detecting chemicals including organophosphate pesticides on fruit, and gaseous air pollutants. For consumers, it seems it is the detection of unpleasant and unhealthy odours where e-noses may be most successful.
Of course, detection through scent is only the beginning – visualizing the data in order to be able to take action from it is crucial. For example, Odowatch, Odotech’s system for environmental monitoring, takes continual readings from e-noses positioned remotely, near sources of odour such as landfill sites. Their system is able to take measurements from the landfill sites and augment this data with, for example, meteorological data. They are then able to quantify the odours at each site and plot, the footprint of the odour plume.
It is interesting to observe how senses that seem innately human – sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell are being synthesized and reproduced digitally. In the instance of scent, the eNose can offer more than a reproduction- it is perhaps a nose upgrade. First it can detect things through smell –such as cancer – that the human nose cannot detect. Because the eNose is abstracted and connected, data that it captures can be reused in other applications and judgments made from it. Finally, unlike a human it doesn’t get overwhelmed by odours or show distaste at bad odours. Indeed, next time you want to locate the source of an unpleasant smell on your carpet, you may not have to get down on your hands and knees, but instead maintain a safe distance and use your e-nose.