April 21st, 2010
02:00 PM ET

Security Brief: Cell phones to 'smell' biochem attack?

The Department of Homeland Security hopes new phones could sense chemicals in the air.

If you ever get caught up in a chemical or biological weapons attack, your cellphone may save your life. Or at least that’s the ambition of the Department of Homeland Security.

The Department’s science and technology team has begun talks with four cell-phone manufacturers on designing ‘nextgen’ phones that would be able to sense a wide variety of noxious chemical compounds in the air – and alert the user. The director of the “Cell-All” program at the DHS, Stephen Dennis, tells CNN that within a year, “We expect up to 80 prototype cell phones to be developed that can be then tested against various agents.”

The vision is to alert cell-phone users to all sorts of risks – from accidental gas leaks to a terror attack using poison gas. For example, if ammonia escaped from a train wreck, the gas would trigger an alert. The chip – at current prices – would cost as little as $1.

One of the technologies being examined is a porous silicon “nose” that is based on – amazingly - the beetle shell. Professor Michael Sailor at the University of California San Diego uses silicon to mimic the way a beetle’s complex shell produces iridescence. Sailor uses chemistry to give silicon particles a sponge-like structure. The particles’ pores are designed to recognize and sop up molecules of certain toxins. So these “artificial” noses can potentially detect scores of chemical compounds.

NASA is also involved – helping with the chemical sensing, and using technology designed for measuring air quality in the space program.

“They rethought the platform,” says Dennis, scaling it down to ‘nanosize.’

The application would go beyond warning the consumer. Dennis’ team is already consulting emergency service providers to see how phone alerts might be automatically fed to authorities. Dozens of alerts from multiple phones in one location would help responders quickly to assess the nature and extent of the threat. In technical jargon, this “crowd-sourcing” helps provide a more accurate read-out of the threat. (So for example if someone spilt some bleach at a laundromat, it would not translate into a major public emergency.) The alert process would take less than a minute – and that seems a lot more efficient than hundreds of panicked citizens dialing 911.

Imagine how useful such an application would have been had you been a Tokyo commuter on March 21 1995, when members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult released sarin gas in five coordinated attacks on the city’s subway. Eight people died; more than 5,000 were taken to hospitals.

Don’t expect the application to be ready tomorrow – the “Cell-All” folks acknowledge it could be several years before it is commercially available. The manufacturers involved have to grapple with design issues, power drain and other challenges. And the sensors have to be designed in such a way that the number of “false positives” is kept to a minimum. A lot of false alerts would not do anyone’s nerves much good.

The DHS stresses that the technology would be optional in phones and that data transmissions would be anonymous.

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Filed under: National security • Technology
soundoff (51 Responses)
  1. Codex

    The biggest use of this I see is carbon monoxide and radon detection. Common problems for many, and this would be a very effective cure.

    April 21, 2010 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Michael

    Okay, so there you are, standing at 57th and Park Ave. and your phone starts beeping an alert that you're in the middle of a poison gas attack, what do you do? Oh, I know, hail a cab and sit in stand-still traffic for two or three hours while rigor sets in.

    April 21, 2010 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
  3. tx_n8iv

    if my cell phone could just tell me which "fellar is the smellar" ...

    April 21, 2010 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Orval Hollingsworth

    Michael your paranoid. Think instead of what else this technology can detect. Things you wouldn't want detected. Then think, can you really turn it off.

    April 21, 2010 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
  5. ski2xs

    @Michael. . . ROFL. . . Or perhaps it could give an audio clip. "You've just been hit with a blistering agent, please remain calm as your flesh begins to peel."

    April 21, 2010 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Jeff

    This makes me wonder what they are trying to keep our minds off of now.

    April 21, 2010 at 4:59 pm | Report abuse |
  7. thatstheway

    The object to integrate terror into everyday life unending war that you pay for and cant Live without, as it becomes familiar and you friend

    April 21, 2010 at 5:07 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Ben

    You will have to hold it up at arm length as high as you can at all time to get a good air sample. Never put it in your pocket or purse....

    April 21, 2010 at 6:43 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Avinash

    cool thing to have will be when attack happens, the data is sent to a central network to do some intelligent analysis of coordinates and send direction to the user how to get out of the area safely.

    April 21, 2010 at 7:24 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Chris

    I think they should start with something more basic like having short wave reception in cellphones which you can do with a handful of transistors and not much extra weight. It was apalling that during Katrina there was a total breakdown of communication while poeple (at least in the first few days) had functioning cell phones but no cell towers.

    April 21, 2010 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Tom

    This has the potential to be a nightmare for first responders nation wide. I am a hazmat technician with a large midwestern fire department. We have a wide variety of sophisticated detection devices. All of them have limitations and are subject to false alarms. They requier trained users to differentaite a false alarm from a potential exposure.If the general pulic starts carrying detection devices I can imagine first responders being inundated with false alarms.

    April 21, 2010 at 8:23 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Guy Montague

    ...You guys understand this is optional, right?

    "The DHS stresses that the technology would be optional in phones and that data transmissions would be anonymous."

    Its kind of a cool device, and if It came out and really only cost one dollar I would probably get it. Why not? I'm not emotionally unstable enough that having it would somehow strike fear and paranoia into my heart automatically. Chillax.

    April 21, 2010 at 8:34 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Michele

    Seems like a really dumb idea. What happens when one of these devices fails and "notifies" the other 250 people in the subway with you? Mass hysteria anyone? Or how about the opposite? They go off all of the time so no one bothers when it is legit. Put the sensors on top of light posts and let them be monitored by professionals with a LOT of training, common sense and brains!

    April 21, 2010 at 8:37 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Jonathan

    During WWII, the tops of pillar boxes (public letter deposit boxes) in Britain were painted with chemicals to change color during a gas attack, to alert the public. Old ideas, new technologies.

    April 21, 2010 at 11:44 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Jeremy Norel

    Devices like these could be enhanced in more ways than detection alone, I would think a few features of the chip would be :

    – sms notification to emergency services and other necessary departments
    – audible alert with voice instructions depending on what type of substance
    – updates of audible alerts downloadable to cell phone with data plan
    – multi-carrier broadcast of surrounding area, notifying all users in area to stay clear, even if not the original detection device
    – integration with gps systems to allow pinpoint accuracy of discovery made
    – sms notification to family members option

    Just to name a few. Personally I believe this would enhance security, as long as it was clear which substances where being tracked as this could be used to analyze more than just toxic substances alone.

    April 22, 2010 at 12:03 am | Report abuse |
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