An Israeli firm has developed the world’s first nanotech-based “electronic nose” to sniff out security threats like bombs, biological warfare agents, and toxic liquids. The developers say their new nose even outperforms dogs and will be available next year.

The system, designed by Tel Aviv-based Tracense Systems, can detect even the smallest amounts of material, according to Dr. Ricardo Osiroff, the company’s CEO.

“Our ‘laboratory-on-a-chip’ nano-sensors can detect a wide range of chemical threats, such as explosives, chemical and biological warfare agents, in air, solid and liquid samples, at extremely low concentrations, unmatched by existing technologies,” said Osiroff. “Our system meets and beats the capabilities of dogs and other animals.”

“Smell” is a manifestation of specific molecules, and each smell gives off its own specific chemical qualities. So detecting an odor is just a matter of figuring out which molecules are being “smelled” – no biggie for modern science. Several systems already do just that, using analytical chemistry-based equipment.

The problem is that those systems are generally too large and expensive to be deployed in the field, said Osiroff. Most of the equipment available, said Osiroff, besides being expensive and bulky, is “limited” to specific groups of smells, requires tedious sample collection procedures, and does not have enough sensitivity to detect small amounts of molecules. Turning it into an effective device that can be used practically by police, security officials, airport personnel, and others charged with public safety and security is the challenge.

That’s where Tracense’s innovations come in, said Osiroff. “Our proprietary inventions in the field of applied nano-technology allow us to develop arrays of hundreds of tiny sensors on a silicon chip to that mimic nature’s smelling sense, along with the software needed to analyze these tests. Nano sensors of unparalleled sensitivity are able to detect the most minute traces of chemicals, as low as a few molecules per 1,000 trillion, from air, liquid and particle samples with great reliability, ease of use and at low cost.” He did not quote a figure.

With its technology, Tracense is developing handheld devices that can be used in a wide variety of security scenarios – airports, mass transit stations, public buildings, trade flow, infrastructure, major events, malls, post offices, or in any other setting where the presence of dangerous materials is suspected. The system has been successfully tested on materials like TNT, RDX and HMX, along with peroxide-based explosives like TATP and HMTD.

Tracense nano-sensing technology was developed by a team of researchers led by Prof. Fernando Patolsky of the Chemistry Department and the Nanoscience Center of the Tel-Aviv University Exact Sciences Faculty, a top researcher in the field of nanotechnology and holder of more than 15 patents. Since 2007, Tracense has invested over $10M in R&D, and expects to go to market next year.

“Tracense is the first company in the world to overcome the hurdle of manufacturing a nano-sensor array with reliability, repeatability and at a reasonable cost,” said Osiroff. “Our technological achievements in the field of nanotechnology enable the fabrication of large silicon nanowire sensing arrays on a small semiconductor chip. Tracense sensors meet acute and ever-growing needs of the multibillion dollar market of threat detection for public safety, homeland security, and military uses.”