A new kind of spray is loaded with microscopic electronic sensors

The microchip-loaded aerosol could be used to track environmental and health hazards

electronic spray illustration

UP IN THE AIR Researchers have created tiny chemical sensors that someday could be distributed in a spray to monitor air pollution, or even a person’s health.

K. Kalantar-zadeh/Nature Nanotechnology 2018

Talk about cloud-connected devices.

Using tiny 2-D materials, researchers have built microscopic chemical sensors that can be sprayed in an aerosol mist. Spritzes of such minuscule electronic chips, described online July 23 in Nature Nanotechnology, could one day help monitor environmental pollution or diagnose diseases.

Each sensor comprises a polymer chip about 1 micrometer thick and 100 micrometers across (about as wide as a human hair) overlaid with a circuit made with atomically thin semiconducting materials (SN Online: 2/13/18). This superflat circuit includes a photodiode, which converts ambient light into electric current, and a chemical detector. This chemical detector is composed of a 2-D material that conducts electric current more easily if the material binds with a specific chemical in its environment.

Researchers can choose from a vast menu of 2-D materials to fashion detectors that are sensitive to different chemicals, says study coauthor Volodymyr Koman, a chemical engineer at MIT (SN Online: 1/17/18). In lab experiments, Koman and colleagues created a sensor spray that detected toxic ammonia vapor inside a sealed section of piping, as well as a spray that ID’d soot particles sprinkled across a flat surface.

Right now, researchers can determine whether their sensors have come in contact with certain particles only after the fact — by collecting the chips and hooking them up to electrodes. These electrodes test how easily electric current flows through a chip’s chemical detector, which reveals whether it touched a particular chemical after it was sprayed. But future sensors could emit light signals when in contact with target particles, says study coauthor Michael Strano, a chemical engineer at MIT.

The team is also investigating ways to power the circuits without ambient light and to integrate multiple chemical detectors onto a single chip. The simpler, single-chemical detection systems tested so far are “only the beginning,” Koman says.

“It’s very exciting,” says Kourosh Kalantar-Zadeh, an electrical and chemical engineer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney whose commentary on the study appears in the same issue of Nature Nanotechnology. Sprayable sensors could someday detect gas leaks, pollution from power plants, volatile organic compounds and other air and water contaminants (SN: 3/17/18, p. 12).

Being so tiny, the devices could also be injected into a person’s bloodstream to monitor its chemical composition for medical purposes — like a blood test that wouldn’t require drawing any blood, Kalantar-Zadeh says. Or chemical sensors could be taken as nasal spray or swallowed to track digestive health (SN Online: 1/8/18). Unlike silicon-based devices that might pose environmental or health hazards, the polymers and the minute amounts of 2-D materials used to make the new devices are expected to be more biofriendly, he says.

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant managing editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

More Stories from Science News on Tech