This Is NASA's Cancer-Sniffing Cellphone Sensor

By Brent Rose on at

What if you could use your phone to test the air for toxins? What if you could monitor your health simply by blowing on it? Sounds amazing, right? Nanosensor technology developed by NASA Ames is going to make that a reality.

Jing Li, a scientist at NASA Ames, has been working for years on what will be the greatest phone accessory of all time. It's a small chip (about the size of a postage stamp) that houses 32 nanosensor bars. Each bar is composed of a different nano-structure material. Because each sensor bar is unique it can respond to different chemicals in different ways, enabling it to not only differentiate between them, but also to monitor their relative levels, in real time.

In its current state (which is looking mighty close to production-ready), it's housed in a small case that attaches to a smartphone. For legal reasons they wouldn't say which smartphone it's built to attach to, but you can probably guess. Eventually, it will be built to attach to many other popular models. The idea is to develop a low-cost version so that consumers can afford to have them for health and safety applications. But let's back up a second.

This nanosensor technology was originally developed by NASA Ames for space applications. This is NASA, after all. The first usage was monitoring for fuel leaks around launch vehicles. They've been on the International Space Station since 2008, monitoring air-quality and checking for formaldehyde in the air. Future applications could include taking samples on asteroids and Mars missions. So that's where it started, but the Department of Homeland Security is now funding this project in order to bring it back down to earth—and to consumers.

There are certainly military applications (the Department of Defense is funding an implementation where soldiers could wear these to alert them of chemical threats), but the cellphone implementation is aimed squarely at consumers. The chip only draws 5 milliwatts, which means very little battery-drain (the smartphone they tested it with can use the sensor for 8 continuous hours on a single charge). It's primarily being developed to monitor carbon monoxyde as well as chlorine, ammonia, and methane in your home. But these things could really be used anywhere because they're so small. An app could automatically send data back to the Department of Homeland Security or other emergency services agencies, which would give them a big-picture look at a larger area—and let them know if a mass evacuation is needed.

The most exciting potential use, though, is how it could diagnose and monitor people with medical conditions. For example, for diabetes patients there is a direct correlation between the level of acetone in their breath and the level of sugar in their blood. The nanosensor could be used as a completely non-invasive diagnosis and measurement method. Just breathe on your phone. No more pricking your finger a million times a day. We have a pretty serious aversion to the word revolutionary here, but this thing fits the bill.

There is also a correlation between nitrous oxide and lung cancer. Breathing on your phone could give you the early warning you need to catch it in time (or it could tell you you've been huffing whipped cream). Scientists have already trained dogs to accomplish this, but this way you won't have to keep a labrador in your pocket.

This list only scratches the surface of its potential uses.

While it still has a ways to go before it could be considered for the "Tricorder" X-Prize, it's certainly a major step in the right direction. Because of its size it's possible that one day sensors such as these will be built directly into smart phones. That's the kind of tech we want to see. Much of mobile technology is just noise and distraction, but a cell phone that could potentially save you thousands in doctor visits, or that could help you stay ahead of a problem before it's life-threatening? Bring it on. It's great to see NASA pushing this kind of envelope, and we hope to see it in everybody's pockets in the very near future.

Space Camp is all about the under-explored side of NASA. From robotics to medicine to deep-space telescopes to art. For these couple of weeks we'll be coming at you direct from NASA JPL and NASA Ames, shedding a light on this amazing world. You can follow the whole series here.

Video shot by Bill Bowles, edited by Woody Jang.

Special thanks to Mark Rober, Jessica Culler, Dan Goods, Val Bunnell, and everybody at NASA JPL and NASA Ames for making this happen. The list of thank yous would take up pages, but for giving us access, and for being so generous with their time, we are extremely grateful to everyone there.