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A new kind of spray is loaded with microscopic electronic sensors


The microchip-loaded aerosol could be used to track environmental and health hazards

UP IN THE AIR Researchers have created tiny chemical sensors that someday could be distributed in a spray to monitor air pollution, or even a person’s health.

Talk about cloud-connected devices. Using tiny 2-D materials, researchers have built microscopic chemical sensors that can be sprayed in an aerosol mist. Spritzes of such minuscule electronic chips, described online July 23 in Nature Nanotechnology, could one day help monitor environmental pollution or diagnose diseases.

Each sensor comprises a polymer chip about 1 micrometer thick and 100 micrometers across (about as wide as a human hair) overlaid with a circuit made with atomically thin semiconducting materials (SN Online: 2/13/18). This superflat circuit includes a photodiode, which converts ambient light into electric current, and a chemical detector. This chemical detector is composed of a 2-D material that conducts electric current more easily if the material binds with a specific chemical in its environment.

Researchers can choose from a vast menu of 2-D materials to fashion detectors that are sensitive to different chemicals, says study coauthor Volodymyr Koman, a chemical engineer at MIT (SN Online: 1/17/18). In lab experiments, Koman and colleagues created a sensor spray that detected toxic ammonia vapor inside a sealed section of piping, as well as a spray that ID’d soot particles sprinkled across a flat surface.

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