Research funded by the National Science Foundation has devised a tiny ‘electronic nose’ gas detection device by finding a way to print thin sensor films onto a microchip and as a result, a process that could eventually allow for the mass production of highly sensitive gas detectors.

Led by MIT professor Harry Tuller, the researchers have engineered a novel inkjet printing method that could be used to detect hazards such as carbon monoxide, harmful industrial solvents and even explosives.

The prototype sensor, created by members of MIT’s Electroceramics Group, consists of thin layoers of hollow spheres made of the ceramic material barium carbonate, which can detect a range of gases. Using a specialised inkjet print head, gas sensitive materials can be rapidly deposited onto a surface and analysed.

Tuller commented, “Mass production would be an enormous breakthrough for this kind of gas sensing technology. There are many reasons why it’s important to monitor our chemical environment.”

The miniature, low-cost detector could be used in a variety of settings including an industrial workplace, an air conditioning system or a car’s exhaust system. The sensors have an array of films that each respond differently to different gases, therefore making them capable of distinguishing between gases and useful for a number of locations.

In future studies the team hopes to create large arrays of gas-sensitive films with controlled 3D shapes and morphologies.