A team of four MIT researchers has developed a new wearable sensor that can detect toxic gases and talk to smartphones or other wireless devices to warn users when they are in danger.
Using these sensors, the researchers hope to design badges that weigh less than a credit card and can be easily worn by military personnel on the battlefield.
“Soldiers carry a lot of equipment already, and a lot of communication devices,” said Timothy Swager, Professor of Chemistry at MIT and lead author on a paper describing the sensors that was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. The paper’s co-authors are post-doc student Shinsuke Ishihara and PhD students Joseph Azzarelli and Markrete Krikorian.
“Soldiers have no wearable sensors to detect toxic gases. They use a variety of detectors, but they’re not the kind of thing you can carry around. Our sensors weigh less than a piece of paper,” Swager said.
In layman’s terms, the system works as follows. The sensor is a circuit loaded with carbon nanotubes. Carbon nanotubes are cylindrical molecules that look like little wires.
“Let’s think about the wires we’re familiar with, such as electric wires,” Swager explained. “They’re wrapped in plastic.” As a result, the actual wire is insulated from the external environment and users are safe. In the carbon nanotubes case, insulation is not achieved thanks to a plastic case. “We wrapped the nanotubes with a polymer,” Swager explained.
When exposed to toxic gases, such as Sarin gas, the polymer breaks apart and the insulation disappears. Consequently, the nanotubes touch each other and become conductive. When this happens, a signal is sent to the smartphone.
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