Saying it with chemicals

Article by Staff Writer

ENGINEERS have developed a chemical communication system that uses pulses of vinegar and glass cleaner to transmit messages. As bizarre as it sounds, they say it could help to advance nanotechnology.

The technology, developed by Stanford researcher Nariman Farsad, relies on a binary system but instead of zeros and ones it transmits pulses of acid and base chemicals – vinegar and glass cleaner. The system works by typing a message into a computer which sends a signal to a machine ordering it to pump out the corresponding ‘bits’ of chemicals. These pulses travel through plastic tubes to a small container with a pH sensor. The changes in pH are then transmitted to a computer to decipher the encoded text message.

Farsad had originally developed a system that used vodka to transmit messages but the receiving end became too saturated to receive more messages. The use of acid and base pulses overcomes this problem as the chemicals cancel each other out at the receiving end.
While it’s been suggested that the technology might be used to bypass conventional communication routes to send secret messages or provide a back up if terrorists take down the grid, the researchers believe nanotechnology could offer the first practical use.

“One of the most exciting applications, in my mind, is in-body communications,” says lab leader professor Andrea Goldsmith. “You don’t want to send electromagnetic waves through the body because it can cause damage to the tissues. It also doesn’t propagate very well through the body, whereas the body is already using chemicals to communicate between cells. So our vision is that using these chemical communication systems we can put them in the body to have sensors talk to each other, to send signals to drug delivery systems, to read devices that are in the body.”

“This is one of the most important potential applications for this type of project,” Farsad said. “It could enable the emergence of these tiny devices that are working together, talking together and doing useful things.”

While working to improve their current chemical texting system, Goldsmith and Farsad are also collaborating with two bioengineering groups at Stanford to make human body-friendly chemical messaging a reality.

Article by Staff Writer

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