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. Jared

    Sounds like a great idea once the technology is refined. If it is in every phone, there will be few false positives if they are linked to a central point for monitoring. 250 people in 1 sub way and 1 goes off, then maybe it a false positive, but 250 people in a subway and 10 or 20 or 50 detect the same thing at the same time? The chance of that being a false positive is probably pretty slim.

    April 22, 2010 at 2:28 am | Report abuse |
  2. Craig

    haha i am a Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear defense specialist in the marine corps and this could potentiallty make my job easier or totally obselete.

    April 22, 2010 at 2:53 am | Report abuse |
  3. Craig

    and with all the gear we have (well used to have cause most of it all got replaced by the JCAD) there are so many false positives it takes a specialist to determine the differences based on concentrations and the such. its improbable that any one person would truly take the time to harness the awesome potential of this hoped piece of gear. but great try though.

    April 22, 2010 at 2:56 am | Report abuse |
  4. lenyoa

    How it easy work, phone your emial

    April 22, 2010 at 3:38 am | Report abuse |
  5. jane384

    My government is borrowing from china. I will have to pay more taxes next year to cover the deficit. But then they go around and spend my money to develop a phone which i dont even know if i want. Its all government playing with our fears and actually taking control of our lives.

    April 22, 2010 at 4:08 am | Report abuse |
  6. Elnino

    I want to know the real production of the phone aid

    April 22, 2010 at 4:14 am | Report abuse |
  7. julio brazil

    thats for me is really amazing , when you are getting in home and your stoven gas exaling it
    My cell phone appears and should me save !

    April 22, 2010 at 4:14 am | Report abuse |
  8. Rapheal

    That lmplies a chip can be detective than one's sense.

    April 22, 2010 at 4:19 am | Report abuse |
  9. DavidGC

    This has been in planning stages for years.
    The idea of it alerting the user is new to me, though. Originally, I think it was just designed to alert authorities to a detection.

    April 22, 2010 at 5:21 am | Report abuse |
  10. Savant

    Is it possible that some cell phones have special features today? that the public does not know about?
    Have you noticed that cell phones no longer have an external antenna?
    Have you noticed that they do not require batteries that are as large as they use to?
    They must have a new highly directional way of sending the signal to the cell sight.
    Could this feature be used to send a signal to a extremely precise location on another persons body? To harass? To control someone else behavior?

    April 22, 2010 at 5:52 am | Report abuse |
  11. Astrid

    So where would we be supposed to keep the phones in that case? Wear them as a necklace? The majority of people I know keep them either in the pocket or in their bags.

    April 22, 2010 at 6:04 am | Report abuse |
  12. Bob

    This will raise the cell phone prices as if they are not expensive enough.

    April 22, 2010 at 7:38 am | Report abuse |
  13. Scott 95

    I wonder if the I phone will have a gasmask application so when it smells the gas it produces a little gas mask that yopu have to don within 9 seconds because if your smelling it YOU ARE IN IT!

    April 22, 2010 at 7:42 am | Report abuse |
  14. steve hanoch

    Not sure if the Tokyo subway system has cell amplifiers in its tunnels... I know that New York does not. If not, the cell phones would have not been able to transmit anything to local agencies.

    Try again folks.

    April 22, 2010 at 7:45 am | Report abuse |
  15. lance

    And another step is taken that allows DHS to know exactly where you are at all times. If they can get a report from your phone, they can certainly track their technology to your location whenever they want. Wake up people!

    April 22, 2010 at 7:58 am | Report abuse |
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