Spanish researchers from Barcelona’s UAB, IMB CNM-CSIC, and the Polytechnic University of Catalonia created a thermoelectric sensor based on silicon nanotechnology that is so sensitive that it can detect the flutter of butterfly wings.
The researchers see a huge potential for the use of this device in a number of applications amidst a range of fields, especially the health sector. As the sensor is able to detect very small changes in gas flow, it’s sensitive enough to pick up a variation of temperature measured in millikelvins in someone’s breathing rhythm. This can result in a low-cost effective way of diagnosing sleep apnea or even pneumonia. It’s due to this sort of business opportunity that the researchers decided to create FutureSiSens, a spin-off.
“First, we considered developing an app to detect hazardous flammable gas leaks. But in the end we decided to focus on health applications,” FutureSiSens CEO Sebastián Moreno told ZDNet.
“The sensor has clear advantages: it measures just five millimetres square. It doesn’t consume much energy and can be easily integrated into wireless networks. Hence, it can be very helpful in detecting breathing problems in the developing world, where chest X-rays are quite expensive.”
FutureSiSens is testing prototypes of the microsensor in real environments. It is being compared with the equipment used in hospitals to see what advantages and benefits it offers.
“Today, patients have to spend a whole night at the hospital surrounded by qualified personnel and covered by a bunch of sensors connected to their body measuring their vital signs to get a good diagnosis of sleep apnea. Considering its characteristics, our sensor has an undoubted potential in this sector,” Moreno says.
The next step for FutureSiSens in the upcoming months is to improve and reduce the size of the microsensor to two square millimetres. This will allow it to be easily integrated into personal protective equipment used by firefighters or miners, enabling instant detection of respiratory failure and sending an alarm signal to a PBX.
“Monitoring doesn’t need to be constant with our technology. You can get a sensorised device and an autonomous generator without the need of a battery. Data collection and processing in real time are key to effective decision-making,” Moreno says.
FutureSiSensplans plans to market its sensor in early 2017 and develop its own sensorised device by the end of next year.
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