Sniffing out a winner? An image of a 'mobile olfaction' device with an MSS sensor. The secret is in the piezoresistors, obviously! Image credit: International Center for Materials Nanoarchitectonics (WPI-MANA)

Somebody had to say it… the development of ‘olfaction’ (the sense of smell) technology through a new breed of nanomechanical sensors will help us to create the Internet of Smells (IoS).

Smelly sensors

An alliance between six organizations including Kyocera, Osaka University and NEC is attempting to set what it hopes could become a de facto standard for smell technology employing a small sensitive sensor called a Membrane-type Surface stress Sensor (MSS).

An initial collaboration between the Japan-based firms saw the formation of the MSS Alliance back in September 2015.

How does smell technology work?

The MSS sensor is capable of measuring what have been described as ‘diverse molecules’ in the atmosphere and also in liquids, including gas molecules and biomolecules. For completeness here, let’s note that a biomolecule is a molecule that is involved in the maintenance and metabolic processes of living organisms.

The MSS is not the first nanomechanical sensor to arrive and start populating the Internet of Things (IoT). Nanotechnology itself is focused on matter that exists at an atomic, molecular or supramolecular scale and as an approach it has been used to create medical self-healing devices, blood response tools and even to look for a cure for cancer.

But says the MSS team, unlike ‘conventional’ nanomechanical sensors, the MSS can achieve ‘high sensitivity’ with a compact system thanks to what has been labelled as ‘comprehensive structural optimization’ with electric read-outs based on piezoresistors.

What do piezoresistors do?

The piezoresistive effect is a change in electrical resistivity of a semiconductor or metal when mechanical strain is applied. This type of technology is precisely the kind of mechanics that is helping us to actually physically create the IoT. While software intelligence will be needed to collate, analyse, process, store, interpret and communicate the data resulting from these devices, the information itself will come from areas like piezoresistive read outs… be they in binary 1s and 0s, or simply in positive or negative values.

MSS says the sensitivity of the new devices is more than 100 times higher than that of conventional piezoresistive nanomechanical sensors, even surpassing that of optical read-out.

According to an official statement from Japan’s National Institute for Materials Science, “The MSS will be utilized for the development of ‘mobile olfaction’ compatible with the emerging IoT society, contributing in various fields such as foods, cosmetics, medicine, the environment and safety, anytime, anywhere and for anybody.”

Making digital scents

The idea of mobile olfaction, or IoT-centric smell intelligence small enough to be carried on a mobile device has been developing since the turn of the millennium. After initial notions relating to smell-o-vision that date back to the television and movies of the 1950s and onward, most initial forays with digital scent were focused on ‘producing’ smells rather than ‘consuming’ and analyzing them.

Hence then, the importance of piezoresistors in terms of being a medium that is capable of detecting when a molecular change in the atmosphere which creates a smell has occurred.

Motherboard amusing noted this projection in 2013, “By 2016, you’ll be passing time on the bus by sniffing your mobile phone, scrolling through the crowd-sourced suppositories of the latest kooky celebrity smells: “The scent of Will.I.Am eating a bowl of spaghetti,” “The smell of the top of Hilary Clinton’s head,” —- or the acrid whiff taken from the scene of some iconic, fatal car crash.”

We may still have a long way to go and these predominantly hardware-based solutions will, arguably, see an upsurge in intelligence if the software application development community gets behind the concepts being sniffed out (sorry) here.

The application for people with olfactory deficiencies could be tremendous and there are plenty of other mission-critical smell related applications in the industrial chemicals business and elsewhere.

Who knows what’s next for digital noses?

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I am a technology journalist with over two decades of press experience. Primarily I work as a news analysis writer dedicated to a software application development ‘beat’; but, in a fluid media world, I am also an analyst, technology evangelist and content consultant. As the previously narrow discipline of programming now extends across a wider transept of the enterprise IT landscape, my own editorial purview has also broadened. I have spent much of the last ten years also focusing on open source, data analytics and intelligence, cloud computing, mobile devices and data management. I have an extensive background in communications starting in print media, newspapers and also television. If anything, this gives me enough man-hours of cynical world-weary experience to separate the spin from the substance, even when the products are shiny and new.