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Australian E-Nose may save lives

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AN Australian-developed electronic nose, expected to save the food industry millions of dollars will be unveiled at the Australian Institute of Food Science and Technology Inc (AIFST)’s 38th annual convention in Sydney next week.

The world-patented invention developed by former CSIRO /University of New South Wales scientists, now part of private company E-Nose Pty Ltd, can instantly sniff out weak but unpleasant odours, that give offence to others and generate an electronic fingerprint of the strength and quality of the smell.

In operation since early 2003, and building on university funded research over several years before that E-Nose has already been sold to two sewage companies and four abattoirs where its special metal oxide sensor array will monitor emissions continuously and in real-time.

Using the Internet to report to a factory’s management before the problems reach nuisance levels, it will help avoid environment protection authority complaints and prosecutions, which cost the Australian food industry tens of millions of dollars each year.

E-Nose Director, Dr Graham Bell, a conjoint associate professor at the UNSW School of Medical Sciences, said the new generation E-Nose also had multi-million dollar potential for other noxious industries including oil, metal and mineral refiners.

It is about to be trialed as a diagnostic tool by sheep industry to prevent a range of problems by monitoring the skin odour of live animals. It may also detect minute insecticide particles in meat for export, or detect boar taint – the presence of the male hormone, which affects the taste of pork.

But Dr Bell is most excited about its potential for early diagnosis of human disease by sniffing the breath of patients.

“In the 19th century medical practitioners used their own noses to tell what was wrong with patients: liver diseases made the patient smell fetid, diabetes gave off an acetone smell,” he said.

He is working with Prince of Wales Hospital respiratory physician, Dr Paul Thomas, to help detect early lung cancer that produces a small open sore in soft lung tissue, not seen by x-ray, but which gives off an odour which might be detectable on the breath, early enough to save the patient’s life.

“We’re currently researching this and we’ve got to do it for the sake of the 8000 Australians who die every year because their lung cancer is not discovered while it is treatable. It is not a very popular disease for research funds because 90 per cent of patients are smokers. We are also looking at its potential for diabetes,” he said.

Work on an electronic nose began in the 1980s in United Kingdom, but early models sat unused on laboratory shelves, and later models suffered ‘poisoning’ when their sensors became overloaded by the chemical they were sniffing. Dr Bell said one of the most successful was named Cyrano (after famous French ‘nose’, de Bergerac). His group’s new generation device used fewer, very reliable sensors, and can run in highly variable temperature and humidity. It also includes a predictive alarm system and automatic calibration and cleaning.

The advantage of E-Nose is that it overcomes the time delay in current environmental odour sampling and measurement. Currently air samples are bagged onsite and sent to be assessed by a trained human panel which determines how many times a unit volume of the smelly air has to be diluted before it is no longer detectable – a measure, known as “odour units”.

Dr Bell said that apart from the time and cost to get a result and the fact that the human panel often needed to be re-calibrated by a trainer, E-Nose’s continual monitoring could include a multi-unit network able to provide wide-area or long perimeter monitoring.

“Sampling the environment is like smelling soup…the environment has a range of odours in different concentrations, maybe emissions from other sources, varying meteorological and geographic conditions, so it requires a new generation of electronic nose,” he said.

It was unlikely E-Nose would replace humans entirely, as specialist noses were still unsurpassed in judging the beauty and pleasure of flavour and fragrance. But Dr Bell believes the E-Nose has potential to save lives as well as bring a crucial level of measurement and control to air pollution issues, silencing complaints and saving business and the community much time, money and aggravation.

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