Unlocking Accurate Chemical Sensing on the Go

Advances in chemical sensor capabilities with silicon.


Air pollution is one of the grand challenges facing the entire planet — from the wealthiest nations to the least developed. The World Health Organization reports that nine out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants, and that polluted air takes over seven million lives annually through stroke, heart disease and respiratory ailments.

As a result, the world is thirsty for reliable, high-performing chemical and environmental sensors that can provide previously unavailable real-time awareness of environmental conditions. On one level, this seems like a relatively simple step, given that smartphones are already equipped with miniaturized sensing technologies that can monitor our living environment and activities.

While highly desirable, embedding air pollution sensors in common mobile and wearable devices has not been feasible previously because the necessary trade-offs between high performance and miniaturization have made it impossible.

This situation drove a CEA-Leti team to develop a novel generation of fully integrated optical chemical sensors that leverage MEMS technologies. The team successfully merged multiple functionalities on the same chip, using integrated optics and photonics, fluidics, acoustics and electromechanical transduction. How did the team overcome significant technical obstacles to design a proof-of-concept device that senses multiple environmental pollutants — housed in a minimal hardware footprint?

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By Sergio Nicoletti

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