What Is an Electronic Nose?

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  • Written By: B. Turner
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 12 October 2019
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An electronic nose is a device designed to artificially reproduce the capabilities of the human nose. An electric, or artificial nose can sense different types of smells and even distinguish tastes or flavors. These devices operate based on the idea that smells are made up of different chemicals and compounds. By classifying each unique scent by its chemical makeup, an electronic nose can be programmed to identify smells and tastes. This technology has the potential to provide numerous benefits in terms of health care, public safety, and the environment.

While the concept of an electronic nose may seem like a cutting-edge technology, scientists first developed an artificial nose in the 1930s. These early models used sensors to measure levels of ultra-violet light found in mercury. By detecting the presence of mercury, these devices were able to warn miners and other workers of potential dangers.

Modern electronic nose designs operate slightly differently. These machines incorporate dozens of sensors that measure the amount of different types of compounds found in the air. They detect chemicals as well as organic compounds, then supply this information to a computer. Based on the amount of each of these chemicals and compounds, the computer can provide users with information on smells. One advantage to an electronic nose over a human nose is its ability to detect very low levels of smells, which can help keep people safe and healthy.


The electronic nose is already being used in a number of applications. Some municipalities rely on these devices to test the quality of the local water supply. By measuring odors and taste, the electronic nose can help these agencies produce cleaner, better-tasting water. This type of technology is also used in food processing. Some of these devices can spot e.coli and other dangerous organisms in livestock before they are processed. This can help to greatly reduce the risks of foodborne illnesses.

Electric noses are also used in manufacturing, where they serve as valuable quality-control tools for products ranging from cosmetics to paint. Police and law enforcement agencies rely on these devices to detect bombs or explosives, and also to detect the presence of illegal drugs. In mining, an e-sensing system can help protect miners from carbon monoxide, mercury, and other dangerous substances that can be impossible for the human nose to detect. Modern research even shows that an electronic nose can spot certain types of cancer in patients long before it can be spotted using other types of tests.


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Post 3

@nony - The use of an electronic nose to detect cancer in advance is an intriguing concept. This would seem counterintuitive, since cancer as such does not really produce any vapors or gases. Perhaps I am mistaken, and there is some release of chemical compounds that makes its way through the pores of the skin.

This is the best use of the technology in my opinion, one that detects and possibility prevents a problem before it happens.

Post 2

@allenJo - I’d be willing to bet that electronic noses are used in oil tankers to detect some of the poisonous gases that are on those ships.

It’s my understanding that some of those gases are undetectable by the human nose, and so you could potentially be poisoned without realizing it.

I also think this technology is used in some smoke or fire detectors that detect carbon monoxide or other gases in the air.

Post 1

I suppose that if you’re in law enforcement, an electronic nose would be more useful than the usual pack of dogs if you’re trying to sniff out drugs.

At least with the electronic nose, the drug smugglers are unaware of its presence and have nothing to shoot back at. What I find amazing in the article is that it helps us to truly understand what the sense of smell is.

Smell is nothing more than the ability to detect certain compounds in the air, using sensors, whether they are biological or electronic. That makes it easy for me to understand how something like an electronic nose could be possible, now and even back in the 1930s when the technology was first introduced.

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