Could your smartphone one day be able to smell?
It's a wacky notion, but one closer to reality than we might think, says a Plant and Food Research scientist who just won a top award for an insect-inspired innovation.
Dr Andrew Kralicek and his colleagues have spent the past decade developing a novel biosensor that exploits the powerful odorant receptors that insects use to smell.
"Nature is still orders of magnitude ahead of the most advanced man-made electronic noses that are currently produced," explained Kralicek, who received the BNZ Supreme Award at this month's KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards.
Insect odorant receptors were capable of detecting a wide range of natural and synthetic chemicals, even at very low levels.
His team have now not only worked out how to make these receptors in the lab, but how to put them on different kinds of sensors.
The technological breakthrough first involved chemically linking the odorant receptors to the surface of a sensor.
When an odorant binded to the receptor, a change was observed in the electrical signal produced by the sensor, effectively enabling machines to pick up certain smells just as insects do.
"The potential is massive as smell is the final frontier for sensors."
Their work has turned out a proof-of-principle prototype that could allow scientists to detect miniscule amounts of myriad volatile organic compounds pumped out by animals, plants and industries.
"Essentially, they are a chemical language waiting to be interpreted, as the types and levels of these compounds are all real-time information about the state of the organism or the environment," he said.
"For example, there are more than 2000 different kinds of volatile organic compounds found on the human breath, and more and more are being correlated with the early diagnosis of disease.
"Also, they are the key to plant communication - plants pump these out when they are under attack to let other plants prepare their defences."
The team has had interest from a wide range of sectors.
Kralicek said other specific applications included air-quality monitoring, picking up food pathogens or crop pests, spotting faults or positive flavour attributes in wine, and even identifying explosives and illicit substances.
Better Border Biosecurity had funded a new project to develop a handheld tool for officers to use.
His team's first prototype device was essentially a single receptor on a microfabricated chip, capable of detecting one target compound in liquid.
"We are now preparing a chip that has a panel of receptors on it to enable the detection of many compounds on it, as well as a an algorithm to decode their response pattern to make a diagnostic decision," he said.
"We are also working out how to do detection directly from the air."
The team considered marking a product for one particular market application, but soon realised it made better sense to work with established manufacturers and put their receptors on their sensors.
"This means we will get to market faster and have a greater chance of success as these partners know there markets and users closely," he said.
"We are having conversations with potential partners now."
He predicted their technology could even find its way into one everyday device with which we've become inseparable.
"Think of your smartphone: there is touch, hearing and vision, but no taste or smell - we are hoping one day insect smell receptors will be in your smartphone turning it into an artificial nose."