The Smell Report

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The Smell Report

High-tech noses

The world of advanced technology, after years of preoccupation with sight and sound, has recently woken up to the importance of smell. The Institute of Olfactory Research at Warwick University developed the first prototype ‘electronic nose’ in the mid-80s, and high-tech companies are now selling commercial versions of the ‘Warwick Nose’.

The potential uses of nose-machines, which essentially mimic the functions of human noses but with more precision, are endless. Perfume makers are already using them to protect their patented smells against fake-fragrance merchants, and US dockside inspectors have used a high-tech snout to resolve disputes with fishermen over the grading of their catch.

More exciting are the possible medical applications -Warwick University scientists are researching the use of electronic noses to diagnose illness by smelling patients’ breath (Chinese doctors have been doing this themselves for centuries), and have recently been awarded an EU grant to investigate the possibility of installing tiny electronic noses in phone receivers, so that patients can simply breathe into the phone and wait for a diagnosis. A similar smell-transmission device may soon allow surfers on the Internet to ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ quite literally.

Researchers are investigating the use of breath analysis to identify the stages of the female menstrual cycle: the ability of electronic noses to detect ovulation could benefit both fertility treatment and birth control.

High-tech sniffers may be used not just for breath-smelling but also to detect other subtle changes in body odour that can indicate disease conditions.

Our unique personal body-odour may also become an alternative form of identification, signalling the end of credit-card fraud, forgotten or misappropriated PIN numbers, fake ID cards, etc. The Association for Payment Clearing Services, an organisation set up to find solutions to these problems, is investigating the use of electronic noses in banks, and companies may soon be able to replace security entry systems involving cards and codes with a device that recognises each employee’s personal odour.

So far, the electronic noses available are no more sensitive than the average human nose – although specialist noses are being developed – but electronic noses do have significant advantages over those attached to humans. Electronic noses do not get bored with repetitive smelling tasks, or de-sensitised through habituation to particular odours. Unpleasant smells such as industrial chemicals and sewage do not make electronic sniffers feel sick, and their performance on smelling tasks does not fluctuate according to mood, hormone cycles or other unpredictable human factors.

For most tasks, one of the main advantages of electronic noses is their lack of emotional response to odours, although one writer predicts that future high-tech noses may be developed which "have properties that will mimic human emotions" (perhaps for perfume-makers to test the effects of their products?).