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UK chemists detect air fingerprints

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Chemists at Leicester University have developed a new electronic nose, a piece of kit that can identify the components of a sample of air, including perfume or an individual's breath, in less than a minute.

The team, led by Dr Paul Monks, Reader in Chemistry, and Dr Andrew Ellis, Senior Lecturer, has developed a new test for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in air.

The project began as an investigation into urban pollution, but the team believes it will have applications in medicine and forensics as well.

Dr Monks commented: "The instrument we have developed has the potential to undertake forensic-like investigation of air. In effect we can capture a ‘fingerprint’ of the air composition, and this has many potential uses beyond urban air monitoring, including medical diagnosis and the development of electronic noses."

The body naturally produces VOCs and the presence or absence of these in a patient's breath can indicate specific diseases. A decaying body also produces several specific VOCs. Having equipment that can detect and identify these quickly and accurately could help police search teams.

Dr Monks said that chemical plants, oil refineries, gas platforms, vehicle and aircraft emissions, are all major sources of atmospheric VOCs. They are also emitted by many consumer products such as paints, solvents, glues, newspapers, and cosmetics.

Many of these VOCs are toxic or carcinogenic, he went on, an although they are usually only present in very small quantities, human safety levels are often exceeded in poorly ventilated buildings.

"Increasing concern about the impact of VOCs on human health is feeding a growing demand for devices to detect these compounds," he said.

The team is developing a number of science projects to further test their detection technique. One project they have planned is the ultra-sensitive detection of short-lived atmospheric species that control photochemical smog formation. ®

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