Smartphones / Photo by: DisobeyArt via Shutterstock


Breathalyzers are devices typically used to estimate the blood alcohol content from a breath sample. If adjusted properly, some models of breathalyzers can detect signs of diseases based on the substances in a breath sample. A team of researchers has found a way to make this detection system possible on smartphones.

Nano-optomechanical systems are composed of specialized sensors normally studied in airtight environments. However, applying the sensors in open-air conditions makes them work better, compared to standard conditions. Researchers at the Nanotechnology Research Center at the University of Alberta found these sensors applicable for medical diagnoses such as in running metabolic readings and screening for cancer markers in the future.

The idea of using the sensors in open-air conditions came from Wayne Hiebert, a nanotechnologist and an adjunct professor of physics at the UAlberta. Scientists used to believe that the sensors worked best in spaces sealed off from any air due to their very small sizes. The belief was based on the sharper readings obtained from vacuums, compared to those from spaces with air.

But for four years, previous work of Hiebert resulted in the debunking of that belief. Readings from vacuums taken by the sensors are lower than the ones taken in non-vacuums. The data obtained from non-vacuums provided more details of what chemicals or molecules are in the air.

“We’ve demonstrated that the air damping is a good thing and that you want to operate this device in air. That removes a huge hurdle … This device can be commoditized,” explained Hiebert.

Once the sensors and their associated systems have been fully developed, they could be installed in smartphones to perform some limited type of breath analyzing tests. Within the next 10 years, some flagship smartphone models might come with breathalyzer sensors.

“What I would envision (in the future) is that people could breathe onto their phone and then be able to tell what they had for lunch. Or updating their social media with their metabolic profile,” added Hiebert.