In a surprising twist of technology and magic, a group of lab coat enthusiasts, who like to call themselves researchers, have engineered a device that sniffs out formaldehyde in the air. Get this, it’s not just any old device, it’s a miracle machine made from ‘frozen smoke’ – yeah, you heard it right – and loaded with some artificial brain power – A.K.A artificial intelligence. And it doesn’t just whiff out formaldehyde, it beats out most traditional indoor air sensors showing them how it’s done by detecting concentrations as low as eight parts per billion. Woah!
The mighty brains behind this wonder device hail from the University of Cambridge – yes, if you’re thinking Harry Potter, you’re not alone. You’ve gotta admit this frozen smoke thing does sound a little like something out of Hogwarts’ potions class, right? Anyway, instead of whipping up a Polyjuice Potion, these resourceful researchers trained their sights on some super porous materials known as aerogels and gave them a makeover.
Now these aerogels sport perfectly engineered holes that let them play detective and sniff out formaldehyde, a silent menace of our indoor air space. You see folks, this is not just any hole-y aerogel, this is Cambridge-hole-y-aerogel. Following me so far? Good.
These little show-offs don’t need much juice, are flexible (like every yoga guru wishes they were) and could serve as miniature air vigilantes, keeping check on those pesky hazardous gases. Oh, and they donned their Sherlock Holmes hatr in the pages of Science Advances.
Volatile organic compounds (we’ll call them VOCs because we’re friendly like that), are the party poopers of indoor air, causing a flood of tears, a throat on fire and marathon panting sessions. Prolonged exposure may even lead you down the dreaded cancer lane.
Formaldehyde, a VOC and secret nemesis, plays undercover agent in household items like pressed wood products, wallpapers, paints and certain fabrics that have an unhealthy affinity for science experiments. The World Health Organization (WHO), yes, the same guys who’ve been all over the news recently, warns us against it.
According to some air puritans from Clean Air Day, one in five households in the UK are hotbeds for formaldehyde. The sensors out there don’t quite cut it when it comes to sniffing out the different types of VOCs or detecting low formladehyde levels but our Cambridge heroes are determined to change this.
“We wanted to develop a sensor that is small and doesn’t use much power, but can selectively detect formaldehyde at low concentrations,” said Zhuo Chen, who is way smarter than the rest of us.
Hence, the super sensor was designed with aerogels which really live up to the ‘lighter than air’ tag. Their openness lets gases free-flow while their reshaped holes act like vigilant guards to detect them.
The big brains then decided to give their detection game a boost by optimizing and shaping the aerogels just right for sensitivity to formaldehyde. They then drew out lines of the king of carbon – graphene, freeze-dried it to form the holy holes, and popped in tiny semiconductors known as quantum dots – all in a day’s work.
Giving most other sensors a run for their money, their magic machine worked wonders at room temperature, consuming less power than your decade-old smartphone.
“Our sensors work incredibly well at room temperature, they use between 10 and 100 times less power than other sensors,” bragged Chen. They even decided to take it one step further and introduced machine learning into the mix. Yeah, power move.
Now these brainy sensors can distinguish between innocent VOCs from malicious formaldehyde giving us a better picture of indoor air quality and any potential health risks. They can even be tailored to detect other VOCs – one sensor to rule them all, pun intended.
“By using highly porous materials as the sensing element, we’re opening up whole new ways of detecting hazardous materials in our environment,” added Chen. And we can’t wait to see what surprises these Atlantic cods… I mean, Cambridge coders have up their sleeve next.
Just a quick shoutout to the Henry Royce Institute, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and Churchill College, Cambridge for putting their faith in this promising project. You guys rock!
Sensors made from ‘frozen smoke’ can detect toxic formaldehyde in homes and offices