Nanotube-Based Chemical Sensors to Defend Against Chemical Attacks

Chemical Sensor based on Nanotubes photo

I’ve written a fair bit about detection mechanisms (see links at the end of this post) because, as the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Making our society more robust is the best way to reliably improve outcomes.

Nanotube-Based Chemical Sensors
Nanotubes strike again (what can’t we do with them?):

What is needed is a cheap way of detecting such gases and, having raised the alarm, of identifying which gas is involved so that anyone who has inhaled it can be treated. And that is what a team of chemical engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, led by Michael Strano, think they have created. Not only can their new sensor distinguish between chemical agents, it can detect them at previously unattainable concentrations—as low as 25 parts in a trillion.

The core of Dr Strano’s invention, which he recently described in the journal Angewandte Chemie, is an array of treated carbon nanotubes [and a micro gas chromatograph].

Gases are identified by the way they change the electrical signature of the nanotubes, and because of the way they are made, gas molecules don’t ‘stick’ very long to the nanotubes (less than a minute) and so the sensor has a long useful life.

Part of a Technological Immune System
At first, these sensors will probably be used in relatively enclosed public places, where gas attacks are more probably, and to track the movements of pollutants. But as the cost of these sensors go down, they could be integrated into a large distributed “technological immune system” (I previously wrote about putting radiation sensors in cellphones).

It is not too hard to imagine a future where millions of people voluntarily carry unobtrusive sensors, turning them into metaphorical white blood cells. Whenever radiation, certain biological agents, or neurotoxic gases are detected, the information would be relayed via wireless network to whoever is in charge of protecting people against that particular threat. With enough different sensors in the same area, it would probably be possible to triangulate the position of the source and track movements over time.

Privacy Issues
There are some obvious privacy issues with such a system, which is why I think it should be made to be “opt in” (shouldn’t be hard to recruit millions of volunteers) and serious checks would need to be imposed on governments to avoid a slippage into Big Brother territory (instead of detecting threats to the public in general, such as ‘dirty bombs’, they could start looking for marijuana smoke…). An open design is probably the best way to keep everybody honest, but even if the design is closed, hackers would probably reverse engineer it in no time.

Bottom line: In this increasingly connected digital age, a lot of technologies raise privacy concerns. Hidden sensors that aren’t in people’s control will probably be a more serious Big Brother issue in the years to come. At least this one has the potential to save many lives…


See also:

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