NEWS: Nose on a chip

Max More (
Fri, 01 May 1998 11:25:40 -0700

IN EXPERIMENTS, circuits already are smelling for illegal drugs in place of
canine patrols. French scientists are working on digital truffle-hunters,
potentially replacing pigs that have for centuries rooted out these
subterranean delicacies. In the commercial world, electronic noses serve as
candidates for hundreds of applications, from testing apples for freshness
to sniffing human breath for infections.But equipment so far is limited,
cumbersome and expensive. A small start-up here aims to change that.Cyrano
Sciences Inc. says it has technology that can be scaled down onto tiny
chips, much like integrated circuits. Starting next year, it plans to
market hand-held devices more the size of a bread slice than a bread
box.Cyrano’s first product, a limited version of more ambitious instruments
the company hopes to produce, is expected to be priced at about $3,000.
That is a small fraction of the $25,000 to $100,000 price of current
electronic noses, developed mostly in England and France.Cyrano’s
technology was developed by researchers at the nearby California Institute
of Technology. Various polymers, the basic substance of plastics, are mixed
with grains of carbon. The hardened mixture, laid over two tiny contacts,
creates a cell through which electrical current is passed. When exposed to
specific vapors, the polymer swells like a tiny sponge. This, in turn,
pulls the carbon grains apart, increasing the cell’s electrical resistance,
a change that can be detected and analyzed. Using a palette of polymer
cells, Cyrano says it can create a "nose" capable of discriminating between
a wide range of odors.The company has yet to build a prototype, but it is a
twist on existing technology, which relies on so-called conducting polymers
instead of Cyrano’s use of ordinary nonconducting polymers and carbon to do
much the same thing. Today’s "e-noses" are used mostly in laboratories and
occasionally on production lines. Millions of cheap, limited sensors are in
use, usually designed to detect specific gases or liquids. More-expensive
devices can identify hundreds of components in substances, but don’t give a
simple "yes" or "no" decision about product quality. Cyrano’s hopes its
profiles of scents do exactly that.At current prices and maturity, the
electronic-nose market is tiny: about $10 million in annual sales
world-wide, industry executives estimate. But a tumble in prices and a
surge in quality could change the picture.
"We don’t think there’s a huge market for the current big boxes, but
inexpensive, hand-held devices will be a breakthrough, we think," says
Steven Sunshine, vice president for research and business development at
closely held Cyrano. Imagine, suggests Mr. Sunshine, a day when electronic
noses might be used in home kitchens to check milk freshness or scan the
fridge for tired vegetables.That depends on production breakthroughs, and,
competitors argue, perhaps even improvements in basic design. For starters,
Cyrano must automate and miniaturize a hand production process. The
company’s first product calls for four separate chips with eight vapor
sensors on each, or a total of 32 sensors. Each sensor is a dot of
polymer/carbon mix about a millimeter square. Readings from these sensors
in turn are to be analyzed by a microprocessor trained to recognize certain
patterns as "smells," much as the human brain does with signals from the
sensors in our nose.That is just a crude beginning. Cyrano’s "nose on a
chip" calls for as many as 10,000 sensor cells on a single chip. "It’s not
a challenge that violates the laws for physics, but it’s a big challenge to
do again and again, day after day," says Richard S. Payne, Cyrano’s chief
technology officer. Tiny jetting equipment today can produce depositions
only about 20 times that size, Mr. Payne says.Cyrano’s competitors are
skeptical. "They can say anything they want to, but without a product, what
they’ll market is a complete mystery to us," says John Poling, president of
the U.S. unit of Alpha M.O.S. SA of Toulouse, France, a major, early
producer of electronic noses. Other companies include Neotronics Scientific
Ltd., based in Stansted, England, and AromaScan PLC, based in Crewe.As for
Cyrano’s assertion that its nose is more versatile and less sensitive than
others to humidity and temperature change, "that’s a claim we all make,"
says Jennifer Cyr, product specialist at AromaScan’s U.S. office.
None of this has slowed Cyrano, formed a year ago with rights to Caltech’s
technology and $3 million in funding from the venture capital firms of Oak
Investment Partners, Marquette Venture Partners, and J & J Development
Corp., an investment arm of Johnson & Johnson. A second round of $9 million
in financing was raised from the same partners earlier this month.While
more will be needed when production starts, current funds will take the
company well down the road to volume production, company officials say.Off
in the future, an idea beckons: "Aroma profiles" of wines might be kept in
store computers, allowing customers to match them with computerized records
of favorite wines. Added patterns could be downloaded from the Internet,
giving new meaning to the "nose" of an uncorked bottle of wine. "It’s not
on our short list," Dr. Sunshine says, "but it’s certainly possible."

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