Finger on the button of anti-chemical warfare

A tiny UK-designed sensor which can detect an almost limitless range of
airborne chemicals could provide a low-cost alternative to existing
military technology.


A tiny UK-designed sensor which can detect an almost limitless range of airborne chemicals could provide a low-cost alternative to existing military technology.


Owlstone, the Cambridge University spin-out company responsible for the button-sized device, has received $2m (£1m) in venture capital to bring the technology to the market.


Billy Boyle, one of the company’s founders, said the sensors are smaller, cheaper and potentially more effective than any of today’s sensor systems used to detect chemical agents on the battlefield.


While many existing systems, such as carbon monoxide detectors, are designed to react to just one compound, Boyle said Owlstone’s device can gather information about all the chemicals in the air.


The sensor’s application is only limited by the software that it is linked to. ‘Each chemical has its own fingerprint, and we’re telling our computer to look for a different fingerprint — whether it’s sarin, mustard gas or compounds in breath to test for cancer,’ he said. Boyle said the military has similar technology, but its devices are ‘around the size of a ghetto blaster’ and cost around £10,000.


‘Ours is a hundred times smaller and a thousand times cheaper,’ he said. The key to the dramatically reduced size and cost is the use of nanofabrication techniques borrowed from the semiconductor industry. While existing systems take weeks to assemble by hand, Owlstone’s engineers produce thousands of sensors at a time. In anticipation of further scaling up of production, the company has signed a deal with an unnamed UK nanofabrication facility.


Conversations with Dstl and interest from systems developers indicate a promising future for the technology, claimed Boyle. Initial applications are likely to be in the military arena, but Boyle said that in the longer term the devices could be used to increase safety on public transport, or to form the basis of highly sensitive next-generation home smoke detectors.



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