Tiny Sensors Can Detect Medical Conditions, Possibly Even Life Forms in Space


A nanochip. / Photo by: science photo via Shutterstock


New sensors developed by scientists at the Australian National University are designed to improve medical diagnosis. More than that, these nano-sized sensors also have the potential to detect life in space.

The sensors are 50 times thinner than human hair that can be incorporated into wearable devices such as smartwatches and wristbands. The tiny detectors measure the substances in the human body called metabolites. Metabolites are a very small concentration of gases that are released through breath or through the skin. Any changes in the metabolites would be able to provide sufficient information about underlying chronic diseases like diabetes.

"These ultra-small sensors could be integrated into a watch to literally provide a window on our health. This exciting invention shows that we are on the cusp of designing the next generation of wearable devices that will help people to stay well for longer and lead better lives," said Dr. Antonio Tricoli, leader of the Nanotechnology Research Laboratory at ANU Research School of Engineering.

Compared to other types of wearable medical devices, the proof-of-concept of the new sensors involved the use of gold nanodisks with fractal clusters. The clusters comprise tiny, branching molecules that are sensitive to any changes in light. These clusters enabled the sensors to recognize the slightest changes in the small concentration of metabolites.

Aside from identifying changes in metabolites, the sensors could also be applied to mark health conditions of plants and the status of fruits. As stated earlier, its capability might even be employed to discover life forms in other planets.

"As the sensors are ultra-small and ultra-light, they could potentially be fitted to micro-satellites or tiny spacecraft that could help in the hunt for life on distant planets, by telling us if there are trace organic molecules of living organisms on distant planets," explained Dr. Mohsen Rahmani, a co-researcher of the study and member of the Australian Research Council.