One of the most amazing electronic noses was recently created by a team of engineers. For this development, the team was granted with a sanction of $750,000 by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) department. These engineers actually used the highly sensitive olfactory system present in locusts as a bio-hybrid “nose” mainly for homeland security applications. To form one such electronic “nose”, the research team deeply studied the neurological activity of these small organisms to observe how sensory signals are processed and received by locusts. Locusts have very simple brains that can be studied easily. These insects are capable of identifying the most specific odors from a crowd of odors. You can always train these insects to differentiate between different odors and recognize a specific odor clearly.
The olfactory system of these insects is a special and practical one as compared to the one possessed by dogs. Baranidharan Raman, the associate professor for biomedical engineering at the Washington University explains, “Why reinvent the wheel? Why not take advantage of the biological solution? Even the state-of-the-art miniaturized chemical sensing devices have a handful of sensors. On the other hand, if you look at the insect antenna,where their chemical sensors are located, there are several hundred thousands of sensors and a variety of types.”
The first phase of the project was to study the free-moving locusts along with their neurological systems and reaction to different odors in all kind of environments. They collected the data on how insects decode the odors around them and then built a machine by analyzing the results. Srikanth Singamaneni, the expert on multifunctional nanomaterials, explains that biocompatible plasmonic silk can always be applied over the locusts wings. When minute amounts of heat is generated the insects are steered to required locations with a remote control. This is how the team was able to control the movements of locusts.
The nanostructures attached to these locusts can also be used in collection of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) for a secondary analysis of chemical compounds through traditional methods. Raman further adds, “We expect this work to develop and demonstrate a proof-of-concept, hybrid locust-based, chemical-sensing approach for explosive detection.” Raman will be collaborating with Adaptive Integrated Microsystems Laboratory for development of miniature electronics.