Nose On A Chip Provides Low-Cost Chemical Detection

April 28, 1998

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., April 28, 1998 -- Microsensors able to sniff out mercury, natural gas, carbon monoxide and other chemicals are just a nose away from becoming a reality at the Department of Energy's (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

The "nose on a chip," which could be incorporated into household gas appliances, consists of an array of tiny sensors on one integrated circuit and electronics on another. By selectively coating the microcantilever arrays with appropriate chemicals, the chip can be customized to detect virtually any chemical or biological species. Developers say a single chip could detect thousands of chemicals.

"Major advantages of the nose on a chip include its low cost, the fact it provides instant results and can be customized for dozens of applications with little or no modification of geometry or electronics," said Chuck Britton, one of the developers and a member of ORNL's Instrumentation and Controls Division.

The microcantilever-based technology relies on the fact the tiny diving board-like platforms bend ever so slightly in the presence of chemicals. Selective coating makes the microcantilevers sensitive to different gases or chemicals. For example, a gold-coated microcantilever is useful for detecting mercury.

"Most existing sensors can detect only single species and have large volume and power requirements," Britton said "Our solution is to use miniature arrays of low power-consumption sensors and electronics on a single chip to simultaneously detect many different species."

Britton is also part of a team led by Steve Smith that is equipping the nose on a chip with a radio frequency transmitter that sends signals to receivers and instruments that allow operators to record and interpret readings. The same technology can also be applied to acoustics, vibration and for geosensing.

Another advantage of the nose on a chip is that it could be manufactured using the standard semiconductor process, making it inexpensive to produce. "Ultimately, this could be something you throw away after using it," said Britton, who added that it's conceivable that some day the chips could be coated using ink jet technology. That would lower the cost still more.

Britton and colleagues expect first applications of the device to be in consumer devices with environmental uses to come later. For example, the tiny nose on a chip could be incorporated into a gas stove or heater, providing the consumer with an added degree of safety and peace of mind.

"The applications are mind-boggling," Britton said. "The ongoing need for improvements in sensor technology cuts across every field of science, and ORNL is poised to continue its leadership in sensor technologies well into the next decade.

"This also illustrates DOE's concern for the environment and any potential impact its facilities may have on the environment. Sensors are a natural development for the DOE labs because you have to be able to detect something before you can clean it up."

Funding for the project was provided through the Laboratory Directed Research and Development program. Other researchers who have helped develop this technology are W.L Bryan, Bill Dress, Nance Ericson and Tim McIntyre of the Instrumentation and Controls Division, Gil Brown of the Chemical and Analytical Sciences Division and Bruce Warmack, Rick Oden and Thomas Thundat of the Life Sciences Division. Rob Jones and Jim Rochelle of the University of Tennessee are also part of the research team.

The collaboration among three ORNL divisions is a key to the success of the nose on a chip, according to Britton, who noted that the Instrumentation and Controls Division provided the expertise in integrated circuit design while the cantilever design and expertise came out of the Life Sciences Division. Brown and colleagues in the Chemical and Analytical Sciences Division have the knowledge of chemical coatings needed for the nose on a chip to work.
ORNL, one of DOE's multiprogram research facilities, is managed by Lockheed Martin Energy Research Corporation.


If you would prefer to receive your press releases by e-mail, please send your e-mail address to

You may read other press releases from Oak Ridge National Laboratory or learn more about the lab if you have access to the Internet. You can find our information on the World Wide Web at

DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Related Natural Gas Articles from Brightsurf:

Study reveals how to improve natural gas production in shale
A new hydrocarbon study contradicts conventional wisdom about how methane is trapped in rock, revealing a new strategy to more easily access the valuable energy resource.

A new material for separating CO2 from industrial waste gases, natural gas, or biogas
With the new material, developed at the University of Bayreuth, the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) can be specifically separated from industrial waste gases, natural gas, or biogas, and thereby made available for recycling.

Study of natural gas flaring finds high risks to babies
Researchers from USC and UCLA have found that exposure to flaring -- the burning off of excess natural gas -- at oil and gas production sites is associated with 50% higher odds of preterm birth, compared with no exposure.

Sweet or sour natural gas
Natural gas that contains larger amounts of hydrogen sulfide (H(2)S) and carbon dioxide (CO(2)) is termed sour gas.

Visualizing chemical reactions, e.g. from H2 and CO2 to synthetic natural gas
Scientists at EPFL have designed a reactor that can use IR thermography to visualize dynamic surface reactions and correlate it with other rapid gas analysis methods to obtain a holistic understanding of the reaction in rapidly changing conditions.

Effects of natural gas assessed in study of shale gas boom in Appalachian basin
A new study estimated the cumulative effects of the shale gas boom in the Appalachian basin in the early 2000s on air quality, climate change, and employment.

The uncertain role of natural gas in the transition to clean energy
A new MIT study examines the opposing roles of natural gas in the battle against climate change -- as a bridge toward a lower-emissions future, but also a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

Natural-gas leaks are important source of greenhouse gas emissions in Los Angeles
Liyin He, a Caltech graduate student, finds that methane in L.A.'s air correlates with the seasonal use of gas for heating homes and businesses

Enhanced natural gas storage to help reduce global warming
Researchers have designed plastic-based materials that can store natural gas more effectively.

Natural gas storage research could combat global warming
To help combat global warming, a team led by Dr.

Read More: Natural Gas News and Natural Gas Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to