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MEMS-enabled electronic nose is nothing to sneeze at

Next on the frontier for micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) is the downsizing of analytic instruments like mass spectrometers -- essentially electronic noses that can sniff out nearly any substance.

The enabling technology is the world's first MEMS vacuum pump small enough to fit inside a mobile device. Invented at Honeywell to enable military micro-drones to detect chemical and biological agents, these penny-sized MEMS vacuum pumps are now poised to enter the industrial, medical and consumer markets.

"What we have done is create the world's smallest vacuum pump -- a unique enabler for a whole new class of analytic instruments," Wei Yang, principal research scientist with Honeywell's ACS Labs business unit, told us. "Many people have tried to downsize analytical instruments in recent years, but the vacuum pump was the last obstacle. Previously the smallest models were brick sized and consumed 100 watts, but ours is now penny sized and uses less than one watt."

The device was invented under a contract with the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) for installation on micro-drones. Honeywell is hoping to market these vacuum pumps as an "add-on sense of smell" for all sorts of mobile devices -- from mass spectrometers that can determine the composition of any substance to atomic clocks that provide ultra-precise navigation services.

"One thing we are very excited about is putting these into smartphones, essentially adding a sense of smell that can sense everything from toxic chemicals to pollen to general air quality," Yang said. "They could keep a cumulative record of exposure for every person carrying one, noting when and where a user was exposed."

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