Saturday, February 14, 2009
In “Our Olfactory Destiny,” the final chapter of What the Nose Knows, I look ahead to what the future might bring in terms of smell. One topic is electronic noses: chemical sensors linked to neural network software. Today, these smelling machines are focused on specialized tasks such as tracking quality control in food ingredients. My guess is that robotic noses will eventually take over the dirty and dangerous jobs that humans don’t want: monitoring emissions from animal feed lots and sewage treatment plants, or searching for land mines.
I also describe how many e-nose labs are using materials and designs that mimic real biological noses. One group in Britain, for example, has lined its e-nose with synthetic snot—a 10-micron-thick layer of odor-retentive polymer called Parylene C.
DARPA—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—recently funded a multi-institutional project called RealNose that seeks to design an electronic device modeled on a biological one: the dog. The goal is to understand the principles of fluid dynamics and odor transport in the dog nose and apply them to an artificial system. Pretty cool.
Members of the RealNose team include several mechanical engineering professors at Penn State University, whose contributions are described in this article.
Exit question: Will an electronic dog nose try to sniff its own butt?