Unlocking your phone, detecting a disease… the breath, the new eldorado of tech

Biometrics technology looks at our breath. Blowing on a sensor could soon do a lot of things: from unlocking a phone to noticing a counterfeit to detecting cancer or explosives on an airplane.

Blow, you are identified! Our breath is a biometric marker, a unique imprint, such as fingerprints, the iris of the eye or the face for facial recognition. When we blow, we emit in the air that we exhale, particles that have a chemical composition that is not the same from one individual to another.

Japanese researchers at Kyushi University have developed an olfactory sensor (a kind of electronic nose) capable of “smelling” our breath and differentiating between any individual with an accuracy of over 97%. If we project ourselves a little, we could integrate this kind of sensors in smartphones to lock/unlock them, in payment terminals or in secure doors (at airports, in companies, etc.).

This technology would be safer than other means of biometric identification, because unlike a face or even a fingerprint, a breath, it is still very very difficult to copy. There are still technological barriers: certain foods, certain diseases also modify the chemical composition of our hatred (if you have just had a coffee, for example), which means that it is not yet completely developed.

A cancer screening tool

This technology could have many applications: in the field of health, it would make it possible to detect certain diseases such as cancer or even heart problems for example. The principle is the same as for a breathalyzer: you have to blow into a balloon.

Thus, the laboratories of the Technion, a major Israeli university, have developed an “eNose” (an electronic nose), a small device equipped with nano sensors capable of detecting biomarkers, very small molecular changes. This would make it possible to diagnose arterosclerosis (accumulation of fat in the arteries). A potential revolution in screening, although again, it will take time to move from university labs to medical laboratories.

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“Electronic truffles” sniffers of explosives, Covid or counterfeits

These “electronic noses” have incredible potential. They could also detect the presence of explosives in an airplane, for example. Airbus is working on an electronic truffle. It’s a bit like the same principle as baggage-sniffing dogs: made up of real living biological cells, real neurons, coupled to computer processors, and capable of sucking in air from the cabin and detecting the presence of certain very specific molecules.

It can be explosives, that’s their primary use. But it could also be a virus, in other words, these small sensors could detect the presence of Covid when a sick passenger enters the plane, thanks to certain molecules present in their breath.

The applications of these “electronic noses” go even further than that. We are now able, for example, to recognize different whiskeys just by their smell, with an accuracy of around 95%. This could become a formidable tool in the fight against counterfeiting. Same thing for perfumes: the electronic nose will instantly tell the difference between a real Chanel n°5 and a copy.

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