Deep within the infrastructure of tomorrow’s future smart city lies technology that is continuously monitoring, detecting and diagnosing practically everything within our environment. As innovations lead to smaller more efficient technologies, these detection and diagnostic tools can now fit in the palm of your hand or be integrated into products. The future of cities, and the future of how we live is evolving swiftly as technologies put more information at our finger-tips.
In the 1960s, Star Trek popularized the idea of a handheld device that could perform multiple environmental and physiological diagnostic tests in real-time. Characters would use this “tricorder” to scan each other and their surroundings for injuries, disease and airborne contaminants.
Today, researchers at the School of Engineering, on UBC’s Okanagan campus, are helping to bring similar technologies from the realm of science fiction into reality, developing detection and diagnostic tools that are not only small and cost-effective, but also highly sensitive and accurate.
“The evolution of micro-fluidics has changed the way we see the world,” explains Mina Hoorfar, a professor and lead researcher at the Advanced Thermo- Fluidic Laboratory (ATFL). “By targeting molecular and ketone indicators, devices are able to provide real-time monitoring and detection solutions for scientists, environmental field technicians, and health care practitioners.”
One such device being built at the School of Engineering is a portable, easy-to-use gas sensor — nicknamed the “artificial nose” — that can detect trace amounts of gases. Another is a breath analyzer capable of diagnosing various health conditions and illnesses using biomarkers.
“A lot of the guessing has been removed from the process through real-time sensor analysis,” says Mohammad Paknahad, one of the lead researchers on the gas detector application. “Whether we are trying to determine if a driver is impaired due to high-levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or whether a patient has a particular illness, the approach is the same.”
Mohammad Zarifi, an assistant professor at UBC, and his research group in the Microelectronics and Advanced Sensors Laboratory have developed a contactless, label-free biosensor device that uses microwave signals to track, in real time, the amount of bacteria present in a clinical microbiological lab environment. It is a process that used to take nearly a week, but can now be completed in an instant.
“The device is able to rapidly detect bacteria, and in addition, it screens the interaction of that bacteria with antibiotics,” Zarifi adds. “The combined results give health care practitioners more information than they currently have available, helping them move forward to determine accurate treatments.”
In another sensor-related research project, Zarifi has partnered with Kevin Golovin, an assistant professor in the mechanical engineering program, to develop high-tech outerwear for military applications. With funding from the federal Innovation for Defence Excellence and Security (IDEaS) program, and in collaboration with Kelowna-based armour company PRE Labs, the researchers are creating personal protective body armour that detects and mitigates chemical, biological and radiological hazards.
According to Zarifi and Golovin, combining a robust material coating with wireless, portable and low-weight sensing capabilities will bring unprecedented levels of security to individuals in dangerous environments.
“Imagine a Canadian Armed Forces member being alerted to the presence of a dangerous liquid before stepping in it,” says Golovin. “But then combine that with the confidence that, should it contact their suit, they’ll remain safe. Prevention plus protection bolsters the safety of our servicemen and servicewomen.”
The results will no doubt extend beyond military applications, and find their way into smart clothing and monitoring equipment. In fact, the two researchers are working on an aviation application that will detect and address ice build-up on aircraft.
Down the hall at the School of Engineering, Mina Hoorfar and Abbas Milani, a fellow engineering professor, are developing a sensitive, low-cost, stretchable sensor that can detect deformations in textiles and composite materials. It does so using a phenomenon called piezo-resistivity — an electromechanical response of a material when it is under strain.
When embedded into clothing that has been treated with graphene nanoplatelets, the microscopic sensor may not only help provide real-time performance analytics by monitoring the wearer’s movements, heart rate and body temperature, but also be used to inform the wearer when it is time to hydrate or rest. Beyond the potential to transform the athletics industry, the sensor has many other applications, Milani says, including monitoring deformations in fibre-reinforced composite fabrics, which are currently being used in industries such as automotive, aerospace and marine manufacturing.
Similarly, gas sensing technology is being added to a wide range of applications, such as environmental monitoring, food and beverage quality assessment, and biological chemical analytical systems. The sensor may also allow people with diabetes to monitor their glucose levels using breath tests instead of blood tests by detecting ketones — chemicals created by the body when glucose levels drop — in the air they exhale. Much like the analyzing device that monitors THC, the gas detector consists of a metal oxide semiconductor integrated into 3D-printed microchannels. To increase the device’s accuracy, the ATFL is actively researching optimal channel coatings and geometry.
Connecting the real-time data acquired by sensors with communication tools like cellphones and cloud services will propel this technology even further, enabling it to provide key information instantaneously for multiple applications. For example, the researchers envision fitting gas sensors onto drones to monitor pipelines for leaks.
From infrastructure to biomedicine, sensors are already being applied in many areas of our lives. As these applications merge and develop — and eventually match or surpass technologies imagined by science fiction — the detection and diagnosis capabilities they provide will continue to improve and change society.
Read more Ingenuity stories atapsc.ubc.ca/Ingenuity2020.