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Electronic Nose: Is it better than Human Nose?

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A human nose is capable of detecting as many as trillions of odors. Practically it is not possible to replace a single human nose with a single sensor. To be able to work as good as a human nose, an electronic nose needs multiple sensors. That’s why electronic nose is also sometimes referred to as multi-sensor array technology.

 

In our daily lives, we use our nose for various purposes viz. to find whether a food is fit to eat or not, to classify a food item into a category, to locate the fowl smelling area, to detect smoke or toxic gases etc. As a matter of fact, electronic nose can do almost everything which we can do with our nose, sometimes in a better way.

What is Electronic Nose?

Electronic nose is developed to mimic human smelling capability for characterizing odors. An Electronic nose consists of variety of sensors where each sensor is sensitive to specific type of molecules to identify and distinguish between different types of odors. Electronic nose is first trained to identify some odors which eventually form a database of learnt samples. Whenever a sample is given to this trained electronic nose, it compares the volatile compounds of the sample with those in the database to detect a match. Every part of human nose, which plays its own role in identification and classification of odors, is replicated in electronic nose to execute their task. Let’s have a look at these parts and their functions.

Function Human Nose Electronic Nose
Inhaling Nostrils & Lungs Pump
Filtration Mucus, membrane and nasal hairs Filters
Sensing Millions of sensing cells Array of sensors
Conversion of chemical responses Receptors Chemical sensors
Signaling mechanism Nerve impulses Circuits
Interpretation Brain Intelligent algorithms for pattern classification

 

How it works?

Electronic nose works on the same mechanism as that of human beings’ smell sensors. When we breathe the volatile compounds suspended in surrounding atmosphere are accepted by our smell sensors. Our brain is a huge repository of many kind of diverse information from which different types of odors also occupy their own space. When we smell, it is matched with those already present in our brain which let us identify the odor. In electronic nose, this task is performed by sensor arrays and pattern recognition system.

Electronic nose consists of three modules for achieving this: Sample Delivery System, Detection System, Computing System.

When electronic nose is subjected to some odor, it passes through these modules where

  • Sample Delivery system enables generation of a sample to be analyzed and injects it to the next module i.e. detection system.
  • Detection system contains an array of sensors to sense the injected sample. Sensors react to the compounds present in the sample. The response of sensors is recorded and transformed into digital value.
  • Computing system combines the responses of all the sensors to produce final result. These results can be easily analyzed with those present in the database. The samples which do not match are considered to be new odors.

 

Applications

The applications of electronic nose are spread over a wide spectrum in almost all the areas. Some of the applications worth mentioning are:

  • Medical diagnostic system
  • Food testing and verification
  • Environment monitoring for factory emissions
  • Quality control in manufacturing and production departments for oil leaks and toxic wastes.

As such there is no comparison between the capabilities of electronic nose and human nose, but in many application areas human nose cannot be put in practice due to hazardous environment. Electronic nose is preferred over the human nose in many applications for the following reasons:

  • Precision: Human nose may sometimes confuse an odor with others but the sensors of electronic nose give precise results.
  • Reliability: If many human noses are subjected to the same smell, they may identify it differently, but there are less chances that each electronic nose gives different result.
  • Robustness: An electronic nose is away from the problems associated with human olfactory system like diseases or infection causing inability to smell. An electronic nose can be subjected to hazardous smell of poisonous substances, while this is not possible with human nose.
  • Do not bite: Human nose get acquainted to a smell when sensed for too long and therefore may not serve the purpose whereas electronic nose will always identify a smell even if it is repeatedly subjected to the same smell.

 

Lot of research is going on to come up with possible applications of electronic nose in many other domains in addition to food industry and space exploration. The idea behind electronic nose does not aim to replace the sensitivity or selectivity of human nose, but to utilize the capabilities of electronic nose where human nose cannot be used.

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