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The Smell of Success

WPI students in Ireland put their noses to the grindstone

The human nose is a thing of wonder. It can distinguish as many as 10,000 different odors. Yet if we spend too much time near a perfume counter, our olfactory powers begin to fail.

Enter the e-nose. WPI undergrads Joe FitzPatrick, Colby Hobart and Nate Liefer spent 10 weeks last fall in Ireland completing their major project: developing a hand-held gaseous molecule detector, also known as an electronic nose. The University of Limerick and a private company, AMT-Ireland, co-sponsored the project as part of the univer-sity's program to spin off technology products and businesses. The e-nose is funded by a European Union grant.

Hobart, FitzPatrick and Liefer spent 10 weeks designing and testing nanotechnology circuitry for one of the most sensitive e-noses developed to date. While similar devices are being designed to sniff out landmines or noxious gas leaks, Intelli-SceNT has mass-market appeal in sniffing out the freshness of food.

After an hour in the presence of strong odors, our noses begin to lose sensitivity. What if your ability to smell is crucial to your business? You need a more dependable nose, one that can put in an eight-to-five day.

Jeff Shilling, vice president of produce procurement for RLB Food Distributors of West Caldwell, N.J., says there is a market for such a device. RLB moves 80,000-100,000 cases of fresh fruits and vegetables each week. Financial decisions are made on a sniff and a taste. "If an electronic nose could detect one spoiled apple or orange in a case and prevent further spoiling, that would be useful and cost-effective," says Shilling. "It would also have an application for floral goods, which we buy for both appearance and fragrance."

In Ireland, the WPI students designed functional prototype circuitry to interface gas particle sensors with a desktop or a pocket-sized computer. The circuitry also makes temperature and humidity measurements to help detect and analyze odors. The end-product will be a hand-held device, much like a Palm Pilot, that inspectors can use to grade the freshness of food. When it reaches the consumer market, sometime in 2005, it is slated to retail for under $1,000. The e-nose won't be as sensitive as the human nose, explains Colby, "but it has advantages--like being objective. It can 'smell' odorless substances. It's consistent, and it doesn't tire out."

"This team tackled a project that would normally be given to seasoned engineers," says Professor Rick Vaz, co-advisor.

The students got a taste of the pace of research and development during the project. Of their 10 weeks in Limerick, they worked just four days building the circuit.

After spending the first three weeks toiling in the Limerick lab on background research, Leifer says the team had a breakthrough. "We discovered the Anderson Loop, an improved circuit that NASA developed to detect precise repeatable measurements to small changes in a circuit--one part in 10,000 changes in resistance. This is a much finer circuit than we knew of, and was just what we needed."

The students also got a taste of life in the Emerald Isle, having the experience of a "home stay." Their host, Peggy Doran, treated them to true Irish breakfasts of meat, potatoes, blood pudding and spiked coffee. On weekends, the trio grabbed their backpacks and explored the countryside, visiting ruins and landmarks.

"This team tackled a project that would normally be given to seasoned engineers," says Professor Rick Vaz, co-advisor. "They were handed a copy of a proposal and told to make it happen." Despite the challenging nature of the work, it was hard to get respect from their peers. "I'd call home and tell them what we were doing," said Liefer. "And they'd say, 'so, basically, you're building a shnoz.'"

Well, it's more like a super schnoz, one that can sniff out spoiling meat in a single whiff, choose the most fragrant rose from dozens, and prevent one bad apple from spoiling the bunch. The usefulness of such a device is as plain as the nose on your face.

--CC

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