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Researchers have built a sensitive electronic nose that can detect pesticides and nerve gas in very low concentrations, an advance which may help screen someone’s breath for lung cancer and multiple sclerosis (MS) for instance.

The best-known electronic nose is the breathanalyser. As drivers breathe into the device, a chemical sensor measures the amount of alcohol in their breath, researchers said. This chemical reaction is then converted into an electronic signal, allowing the police officer to read off the result.

Alcohol is easy to detect, because the chemical reaction is specific and the concentration of the measured gas is fairly high. But many other gases are complex mixtures of molecules in very low concentrations. Building electronic noses to detect them is thus quite a challenge. Now, researchers from KU Leuven in Belgium have built a very sensitive electronic nose with metal-organic frameworks (MOFs).

“The concentrations we are dealing with are extremely low: parts per billion – a drop of water in an Olympic swimming pool – and parts per trillion,” he added.

Other applications for this nose could be the signature scent of a product to find out whether food has gone bad or to distinguish imitation wine from the original,” he said.

The future looks promising! Yours, Fran