Cell Phones that Detect Toxic Chemicals
If the Department of Homeland Security has its way, cell phones in the near future will be equipped with an inexpensive chip that can detect deadly toxic chemicals. The department’s Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate has been working on the initiative, called Cell-All.
We are familiar with smoke alarms, carbon monoxide alarms, radon detectors, and other warning devices in our homes. In fact, the first prototypes of Cell-All will detect carbon monoxide and fire, according to Stephen Dennis, Cell-All’s program manager. S&T is already working on cooperative research and development agreements with four cell phone makers to prepare for such a launch, hopefully in about a year.
The goal of Cell-All is to provide cell phones with a drug-sniffing sensor that is programmed to alert cell phone carriers that they are exposed to toxic chemicals in the air, or to send an alert to a central station capable of monitoring the number of alerts in an area, or to do both. If the monitoring location receives just one alert it could be a false positive; if it receives many, it might indicate the need to evacuate the area.
When the chip detects a toxic chemical two things happen. For personal safety situations, the cell phone carrier will receive a warning either by vibration, text message, phone call, or an audible signal. In case of catastrophe, such as a sarin gas attack, the Cell-All would send information regarding time, location, and the detected toxin to an emergency operations center within less than 60 seconds.
Cell-All will be capable of alerting people when they are not able to smell or see a toxin, such as carbon monoxide, and be able to alert many people at the same time. It will report the exact type of toxin rather than rely on an individual making a phone call to report that they smell something but cannot identify it. An accurate and immediate report from Cell-All will allow emergency responders to know what they are dealing with and to arrive on the scene faster.
Qualcomm, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and Rhevision Technology are lending their expertise to the project. Miniaturization and marketing are the contributions from Qualcomm, while NASA excels in chemical sensing on low-powered platforms, and sniffing technology is the realm of Rhevision, with a porous silicon that changes colors when exposed to certain molecules.
For those who are concerned that carrying a Cell-All will also alert the government as to their whereabouts, Dennis noted that the device will transmit data anonymously and only if the carrier turns the feature on.
There’s no need to stand in line all night to be the first on your block to own a cell phone that can detect toxic chemicals. It will likely be several years before it hits the commercial market. The day will come, says Dennis, when everyone can have a cell phone that is also a chemical sensor, along with the many other wonders it can perform.
Department of Homeland Security