Kudos to Honeywell...we (as engineers) have conqured calculation, thinking (patially), hearing, vision, touch (partially), now smell...I wonder what kind of cool applications companies will develop for consumer use?
Honeywell is working to downsize its MEMS "electronic nose" into a one millimeter thin package--small enough to fit inside any smartphone. If they became standard equipment--like the MEMS accelerometers, gyroscopes and magnetometers have already become--then a worldwide network could monitor everything from air quality to disease control to your exposure to anything toxic, all showing up on a map in realtime.
The coolest part is that they can detect anything, since they use a mass spectrometer to measure the amount of each atomic element in a sample. That "signature" will be matched to a database of all known substances, so that anything that is known can be identified--even biological agents that mark diseases. Of course there are all sorts of privacy issues to deal with here, but even if you keep the data to yourself, you will be able to track when and where you were exposed to whatever. Once and for all you'll be able to identify who gave you that head cold (: or at least when and where you were exposed :)
This sounds like a giant leap for "electronic noses". As digital storage becomes smaller and cheaper, the necessary library data for a spectrometer becomes quite reasonable to consider incorporating in a portable device. I look ahead to the devices that will emerge from this technology. Chemical verification, detection of spoiling food, and allergen detection all seem like possibilities. With small samples, in close quarters, perhaps Raman Spectrocopy can also be further downsized into affordable devices. I wonder what will be the first best selling consumer "APP" for a smartphone electronic nose.
Having watched research on a number of electronic nose technologies for years now, this innovation really is pretty exciting. Most existing approaches are fragile, limited in what they can detect, or expire after one or a few uses. Opening up access to true mass spectrometry at this scale provides opportunities to counter all of those limits, and in particular to provide a level of discrimination that is far beyond anything possible with other approaches. This is remarkable work, well chosen, and with very good potential.
I think this article did not get into the details of the mass spectrometer using the MEMS vacuum pump (which has been described in more detail). I would be curious to know how mass spectrometer can be miniaturized to fit in a smartphone. It seems we will have to wait a while before smelling iPhones hit the market...
Nonetheless, the chipscale vacuum pump in itself is an achievement... next challenging area would be how this can interface to a miniature mass spectrometer.