Researchers say that ultimately electronic noses based on natural olfactory receptors could be used to hone the exact smell, according to product and consumer requirements. Furthermore it could also help manufacturers determine what are the most attractive odours.
The new interdisciplinary technology approach has been developed and tested by researchers in Spain, France and Italy with funding from the European Commission's Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) initiative of the IST programme, and could also serve a variety of industries, including the health service.
"The potential uses of smell technology are endless," said Josep Samitier, the coordinator of the SPOT-NOSED project that developed nanobiosensors to mimic the way human and animal noses respond to different odours.
The researchers claim that the nose biosensor is capable of detecting odours at concentration that would be imperceptible to the human nose.
This has been achieved by placing a layer of proteins that constitute the olfactory receptors in animal noses on a microelectrode. Data is then measured by determining the reaction when the proteins come into contact with different odorants.
"Our tests showed that the nanobiosensors will react to a few molecules of odorant with a very high degree of accuracy. Some of the results of the trials surpassed even our expectations," Samitier said.
He adds that the tiny bioelectronic sensors represent a 'major leap forward' in smell technology and a clear example of a biomimetic devices obtained by converging Nano-Bio-Info technologies.
The SPOT-NOSED researchers genetically copied several hundred different proteins from rats, which they claim is enough to determine almost any type of smell due to the resultant number of reactions the proteins produce.
In turn, nanotechnology makes this electronic nose feasible, the Samiter added, even though the human nose uses 1,000 different proteins to allow the brain to recognize 10,000 different smells.
While the project has to date focused on replicating the physical reaction that takes place in animal noses to determine odours, the researchers say that their next step will be to develop an electronic nose that recognizes smells using high accuracy electronic instrumentation on a nanoscale level.