How Canadian scientists used a mist of alcohol to develop a new pheromone-inspired way to send text messages

December 19, 2013 2:41 AM

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How Canadian scientists used a mist of alcohol to develop a new pheromone-inspired way to send text messages

Using a mist of alcohol and a desk fan, Canadian scientists have transmitted what they call a revolutionary new kind of text message, encoded in chemicals instead of the usual electrical current or radio waves.

Their tabletop device heralds a new age of “molecular communication,” they claim, inspired by the use of pheromones by living creatures, such as dogs marking their territory with urine.

“We’ve established that this is possible,” said Andrew Eckford, a professor of electrical engineering at York University in Toronto.

Their first message, sent a few metres across a lab in Toronto, was 10101100111000101011110110, which is a code for “O CANADA.”

In their paper, the authors describe their device as a proof of concept for an idea that already has a rich theoretical foundation.

“To our knowledge, this is the first implementation of a macroscopic data communication system using chemical signals, and it is one of very few implementations of molecular communication at any dimension,” the authors write in the current issue of PLOS ONE, a leading American journal.

Nariman Farsad and Prof. Eckford of York University, and Weisi Guo of the University of Warwick in the U.K., compare chemical messaging to humanity’s other technological breakthroughs in communication: “semaphores, fire beacons, smoke signals, carrier birds, electrical signals and electromagnetic waves.”

Their device, as yet unnamed, first converts a message to binary code made up of ones and zeroes, just like computers use.

For a transmitter, it uses a common electric sprayer, often used for gardening or home maintenance, hooked up to a custom electrical switch board to control the spray. A spray means one, a pause means zero, and from that system they can build up to any written message imaginable.

Contrary to the consumer instructions on the DuroBlast sprayer, they filled it with rubbing alcohol, a flammable liquid. Vodka, or another alcoholic drink with ethanol, would have worked just the same. For a receiver, alcohol detectors were set up across the room, similar to those in police breathalyzers.

For short distances, less than a metre, the spray was powerful enough that each bit was received almost instantly. For longer distances, they used two different kinds of common tabletop fans to help the spray along.

Each letter was represented by five bits — each either a spray or a pause — and they used two speeds: one spray every five seconds, or 25 seconds per letter, which gave “very reliable” results; and one spray every two seconds, or 10 seconds per letter, which was found to be “unreliable.” The sweet spot for their current set-up looks to be about one bit every three seconds, with a significant improvement expected in an updated version.

That is nowhere near enough to realistically download music chemically, but “you could do something with that,” Prof. Eckford said in an interview.

The researchers speculate on various “niche” applications for this new technology, including such tasks as monitoring sewers or other underground or underwater environments where wireless systems often fail, or testing the structural integrity of construction material in places inaccessible to normal tools, such as inside hollow girders.

Heavy urban search and rescue is another possibility, in which molecular communication could be more useful than listening for audible signs of life, or trying to detect body heat.

Prof. Eckford illustrated the idea with the example of the sunken Costa Concordia, essentially a collection of metal compartments, which radio cannot effectively penetrate, half submerged in sea water, which radio cannot penetrate at all. The real life solution was to send in divers to risk their lives in a search for bodies or survivors, but this had its limits.

“What we’re imagining is, instead of that, you send in self-propelled robots,” he said. “Hopefully you could get them to communicate using these chemical messages.”

Also in the field of robotics, their paper describes how chemical messages could be used for “distress signalling by defective robots, estimating the size of a swarm of robots [quorum sensing], and as chemical trails for robot guidance.”

Other more distant uses of chemical messaging could be at the nanoscale, where devices can be too small to efficiently use traditional radio waves.


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