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Homeland Security wants to turn your cell phone into a smell phone

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego have developed a porous silicon chip that can sniff out airborne chemicals. The US Department of Homeland Security says this could revolutionize protection against chemical weapon terror attacks.

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A team at the University of California, San Diego has developed a cell-phone chip that can detect poisonous gases. The US Department of Homeland Security is interested.

Newscom/File

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Who needs a bloodhound – or even a nose?

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is hoping that soon your cell phone will sniff out poisonous gases. It’s funding three companies to create a small chip – about the size of a dime – that would sit inside of cell phones and alert users to potentially deadly smells.

Michael Sailor, whose research team at the University of California, San Diego works for Rhevision Technology, Inc. to create the chip, says the chips are most useful for first responders or other emergency workers. Firefighters and police could track the location of, say, a noxious cloud in a subway, by monitoring GPS signals from the passengers’ cell phones. They could then use the information to better coordinate a response.

“It’s a laudable goal when you think of it like that,” Sailor said.

The technology is similar to that of a computer chip. Scientists start with a silicon wafer, which they fill with billions of nano-sized holes that reflect different colors depending on their size. If poisonous gas molecule such as sarin enters the hole, it displaces the air inside it, and causes the color that the hole reflects to change.

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