Detecting air pollution levels was once a lengthy and impossible task for non-scientists. Now, a new method developed by Australian and Chinese researchers could help ordinary citizens detect pollution levels in the air by using a smartphone sensor.

This innovative sensor could detect dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide in the air. Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are gases that form from burning of fuel at high temperatures mostly emitted by moving motor vehicles. 

This gas is considered a health hazard as it can irritate the lungs and lower the body's resistance to respiratory infections like influenza. It largely contributes to the formation of photochemical smog which can have a big impact on human health.

Researchers from the RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia and Chinese Academy of Sciences developed a reliable and affordable means to detect air pollution through a sensor that can be placed in smartphones. This can help in preventing exposure to high levels of nitrogen dioxide in the environment that could harm the health especially of young children, older adults and individuals who are suffering from respiratory illness.

They developed sensors using tin disulphide that absorb nitrogen dioxide gas molecules, detect pollution levels and can be manufactured cheaply. They transformed this material into thin flakes a few atoms thick that has high affinity with nitrogen dioxide.

The good thing is, these flakes would not attract any other gases in its surface making it a more reliable device for measurement. They are hoping that a software or app could be installed in the smartphone to alert the user if his environment has high levels of nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere.

"The revolutionary method we've developed is a great start to creating a handheld, low-cost and personalised nitrogen dioxide sensor that can even be incorporated into smartphones," Professor Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, from RMIT's Centre for Advanced Electronics and Sensors said.

"Not only would it improve the quality of millions of people's lives, but it would also help avoid illness caused by nitrogen dioxide poisoning and potentially even death," he added.

Prof. Kalantar-zadeh was interested in determining a sensor for nitrogen dioxide when his pregnant wife suffered from preeclampsia during pregnancy. Preeclampsia is a potentially fatal illness that can endanger the lives of both the mother and the unborn child. He found out that nitrogen dioxide could increase the risk of pregnant women to develop this condition.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that around seven million premature deaths occur every year linked to air pollution. Apparently, Southeast Asia and Western Pacific Regions recorded the largest air pollution-related deaths in 2012. Around 3.3 million deaths were associated with indoor air pollution while 2.6 million deaths were related to outdoor air pollution.

The development of this sensor in smartphones could help a lot of people determine levels of pollution at any time of their convenience. 

Photo: Keith Bacongco | Flickr

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