SALT LAKE CITY — A start-up company at the U is developing an electric nose that can detect odors, such as narcotics and explosives in the air.
“We essentially have an electronic dog nose,” said Ben Rollins, CEO and cofounder of Vaporsens, the company developing the device.
The device is similar to machines at the airport, but is much smaller and will be sold for the same price or less.
“Nanofibers form a web, almost like a spider web, and actually look and function very similar to a dog’s nose,” Rollins said. “And what we have instead of a brain is a chip. So we put this nanofiber net on a chip.”
Police departments are excited about Vaporsens, Rollins said. Police dogs always need their trainer with them and can only go for about 20 minutes at a time in desert climates, such as places near the border. With these kinds of limitations, Border Patrol cannot check every vehicle as thoroughly as they would prefer. After speaking with Vaporsens, the Coast Guard expressed desire for the new technology as well.
“One of their cutters will pull over a ship basically, and sometimes it will actually take them a few weeks to find the narcotics on that ship because it’ll be hidden in panels and they told me the dogs don’t function well on the sea,” he said.
Rollins said there are also those interested in adding the technology to their existing products, including bomb-detecting robot manufacturers and military-grade tablet makers. This technology was first made known to the public when its creator Ling Zang, then a professor at Southern Illinois University, published a paper about it. Shortly after, Zang received a phone call from the Department of Homeland Security.
“You can imagine I was surprised,” Zang said.
Zang was congratulated for the publication and given some suggestions for further testing. In 2008, Zang was hired as a Utah Science Technology and Research professor at the U. Soon after his arrival, Zang secured more than $2 million in funding from the National Science Foundation and Homeland Security for further development of nanosensor technology.
Zang said one of the main reasons he came to the U was to commercialize his technology. He said the link between research and business at the U is ultimately what made Vaporsens possible.
Rollins said most manufacturers that have been approached about the product have said they would purchase it, but it will not be anytime soon. A new prototype will be produced in March and, depending on how that works, there could be testing in the field toward the end of the year.