LAB IMPRESSIONS

DHS to enlist cell phones for early-warning chemical detection

App under development would enable phones to warn of chemical leaks or attacks

The Homeland Security Department wants to equip your cell phone with a sensor that can detect the presence of deadly chemicals.

DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate is developing an application for cell phones called Cell-All. When it senses a chemical threat, the Cell-All cell phone app will send an alert in one of two ways. If the threat is something like a small chlorine gas leak, the app will send a direct warning to the user via text message, vibration, noise or phone call. If it’s a larger-scale catastrophe, such as a sarin gas attack, Cell-All will notify an emergency operations center of the event, with time, location and chemical information.

Now, if you noticed a strong chemical smell on the subway, you could call 9-1-1. The idea behind the Cell-All initiative is that you don’t have to call anybody; the phone determines the nature of the threat and makes the call automatically. Also, if a number of people have Cell-All on their cell phones when a toxic substance is released into a crowd, the emergency operations center would receive multiple alerts about the same event. This crowd-sourcing feature would decrease the number of false positives, DHS says.

This is all still in the prototype phase. DHS is funding the next step in the R&D process, a proof of principle. The department is working with four cell phone manufacturers: Qualcomm, LG, Apple and Samsung. Cell-All program manager Stephen Dennis says he hopes to have 40 prototypes in a year or so. The first one will sniff out carbon monoxide and fire.

One of the elements of the prototype is an artificial nose, developed by a company called Rhevision. It’s a piece of porous silicon that changes color in the presence of certain molecules.

I can think of plenty of times I wished I had an artificial nose on a crowded subway. Clearly, there will be advantages to having this objective measure of toxicity in crowds. On a few occasions I’ve suspected toxic fumes on a crowded subway that turned out to be either somebody’s leftover Szechuan chicken or someone who forgot their Irish Spring that morning. Fortunately, Cell-All’s artificial nose will, in theory at least, be able to distinguish the odious but harmless from real toxic fumes. 

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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