Sensory Systems/Neurosensory Implants/Future Directions/Electronic Nose
Electronic measurement of odors
Nowadays odors can be measured electronically in a huge amount of different ways, some examples are: mass spectrography, gas chromatography, raman spectra and most recently electronic noses. In general they assume that different olfactory receptors have different affinities to specific molecular physicochemical properties, and that the different activation of these receptors gives rise to a spatio-temporal pattern of activity that reflects odors.
E-noses are artificial odor sensing devices based on a chemosensor array and pattern recognition. They are used to identify and quantify substances dissolved in air (or other carrier substances). An e-nose consists of a sampling device (analog to the nose), a sensor array (analog to the olfactory receptor neurons) and a computing unit (analog to the brain).
Like in the animal noses, unspecific sensors are used. This is not only due to the fact that it is very hard to find very specific sensors, but one also wants to cover a huge range of possible compounds without a sensor for each of them. Furthermore it is more robust, precise and efficient if the processing is based on information of more than one sensor. Such sensors experience a change in their electrical properties (E.g. higher resistance) when they come in contact with a compound. This alteration leads to a voltage change that is digitized (AD Converter).
The most frequently used sensor types include metal oxide semiconductors (MOS), quartz crystal microbalances (QCM), conducting polymers (CP) and surface acoustic wave (SAW) sensors. Another promising technology is bioelectronic noses that use proteins as sensors. It is also possible to use a combination of different sensors to get a more precise result and to combine the advantages of several sensor types, e.g better temporal responsivity versus better sensitivity.
Example: working principle of a conducting polymer sensor
A conducting polymer sensor consists of an array of about 2-40 different conducting polymers (long chains of organic molecules). Some odor molecules permeate into the polymer film and cause the film to expand thereby increasing its resistance. This increase in resistance of many polymer types can be explained by percolation theory. Due to the chemical properties of the materials, different polymers react differently to the same odor.
The sensor signal has to be matched to an odorant mixture with a pattern recognition algorithm. It is possible to create a database of potential combinations and find the best match with multivariate statistical methods when an odor is presented or a neural network can be trained to recognize the patterns. Often also principal component analysis is used to reduce the dimensionality of the sensor data.
There are many applications for e-noses. They are used in aerospace and other industry to detect and monitor hazardous or harmful substances and for quality control. Possible applications in security are drug or explosive detection. E-noses may someday be able to replace police dogs. A very powerful application could be the diagnosis of diseases that alter the chemical composition of breath or the smell of excretions or blood, thereby potentially substituting invasive diagnostic techniques. It can also be employed to diagnose cancer, as certain cancer cells can be identified by their volatile organic compound profile. Cancer diagnosis by smell has already been found to work with dogs, flies, but practically suitable methods with high sensitivity and specificity are still under development. Another medical application is the treatment of anosmia (inability to perceive odor) by an olfactory implant on basis of an e-nose. This too is still in development. In contrast, e-noses are already in use for environmental monitoring and protection. In robotics, e-noses could be used to follow airborne smells or smells on the ground. Especially for robotics it would be very interesting to have a better understanding of the insect’s olfactory system, since, in order to use the smell to navigate or to locate odor sources the often neglected temporal stimulus information has to be used.
Insects can follow odors as they can react to changes within about 150 milliseconds, and some of their receptors are able to depict fast odor concentration changes that occur in frequencies above at least 10 Hz. In contrast, conducting polymer as well as metal oxide e-noses have response times in the range of seconds to minutes  with only few exceptions reported in the range of tens of milliseconds.
- Arshak, K.; Moore, E.; Lyons, G.M.; Harris, J.; Clifford, S. (June 2004). "A review of gas sensors employed in electronic nose applications". Sensor Review 24 (2): 181–198. doi:10.1108/02602280410525977.
- Strauch, Martin; Lüdke, Alja; Münch, Daniel; Laudes, Thomas; Galizia, C. Giovanni; Martinelli, Eugenio; Lavra, Luca; Paolesse, Roberto et al. (6 January 2014). "More than apples and oranges - Detecting cancer with a fruit fly's antenna". Scientific Reports 4. doi:10.1038/srep03576.