Israeli-developed ‘nano-nose’ can sniff out bombs, drugs

Tracense’s homeland security odor-detection technology is set to come on the market soon, a company official says

Matan Barami standing next to a Tracense system. (Courtesy)
Matan Barami standing next to a Tracense system. (Courtesy)

An Israeli-developed “nano-nose” could help homeland security officers sniff out explosives — as well as drugs, large amounts of cash, and even small metal items that are banned from planes. “And we do it with far less false positives than dogs or other technologies that are being used now to analyze the odor of explosives and other items,” said Matan Barami, chief chemist at Israeli nanotech start-up Tracense.

Barami was speaking Monday at this year’s edition of NanoIsrael, a biennial event on the burgeoning Israeli nanotechnology industry. Over the past nine years, Israeli nanotechnology researchers have filed 1,590 patents (769 granted so far), published 12,392 scholarly articles on the subject, and had 129 nano-success stories, which include establishing start-ups, selling ideas or technology to multinationals, licensing a patent, etc., according to Rafi Koriat, chairman of the event at Tel Aviv University.

The conference, Koriat said, is a place for top researchers and leaders from Israel and abroad to meet and discuss the latest developments in nanotechnology, “and provides visitors with a first look at cutting-edge technologies, leading scientific achievements and unique business and investment opportunities.”

Tracense, which developed the world’s first nanotech-based “electronic nose” to sniff out security threats, including bombs, biological warfare agents, and toxic liquids and materials, could be included in that “latest developments” category. “We use nanotechnology to treat electronic wires that respond to the ‘smell’ of objects, comparing them to very specific odor profiles we equip our Tracense device with. Sensors detect an odor and send its profile to the wires, which respond when a substance that shouldn’t be there shows up.”

Although most people don’t realize it, “smell” is just a manifestation of specific molecules, with each smell giving off its own specific chemical qualities. Detecting an odor, thus, is just a matter of figuring out which molecules are being “smelled” — no biggie for modern science, with several systems in use to do just that, using analytical chemistry-based equipment.

While there are such systems on the market, said Barami, they do not use nanotechnology, and thus are not accurate enough to use in “live” situations at airports, bus stations, and shopping centers. “Most systems, for example, will detect whether there are traces of fertilizers — which can be used to manufacture bombs — on a person. But what if he or she is a farmer?” That’s one reason similar systems are not widely used — and why Tracense will be when it hits the market, “because our system can distinguish between the chemical composition of fertilizer when it is used for farming, and the changes it undergoes when it’s used for bombs,” added Barami.

Dogs have a much better record than most “artificial noses,” but deploying them on a wide basis makes people uncomfortable, “and you can’t have a dog sniff every person or every piece of luggage.” With a Tracense device unobtrusively stationed at the appropriate place in the airport, people won’t even know they are being inspected, Barami continued.

The Tracense system uses an electric sensor to detect molecules, with the information passed on to wires equipped with nano-sensors. Each sensor stores a smell profile, so when an odor is detected, the system provides a very specific reaction. In numerous beta tests, the Tracense system has been able to detect ultra-low concentrations of explosives, including improvised explosive devices and home-made explosives from solid particles, gaseous streams and liquid samples, the company said.

Technically, the Tracense system could be programmed to detect any odor on earth, and it may just be deployed in other areas, such as in medicine. “The system could certainly detect bacteria, insulin, sugar and other things,” added Barami, but for now the company is concentrating on the homeland security market.

The system should be available commercially “soon,” said Barami. “We are putting the finishing touches on our odor profile library, and I imagine it will be very popular, considering that we are able to do something that no one else can.”

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