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Technology Improves on the Nose As Scientists Try to Mimic Smell

March 1, 1995

Having long ago conquered sight and sound, the technology world is now turning to smell.

At General Motors Corp., researchers are using electronic noses to pinpoint the ``new car″ smell that melts buyers’ hearts and opens their wallets. At Unilever PLC, high-tech schnozzles are replacing some of the human smell panels that sniff people’s armpits as part of the research into new deodorants. Even International Business Machines Corp. is devoting part of its vaunted Zurich research laboratory to work on a ``nose on a chip″ that could be incorporated into IBM personal computers.

And in Britain, where smells can now be patented, perfume makers are turning to electronic sensors to bolster their cases against peddlers of fake fragrances. ``Imagine trying to describe in words the smell of Chanel No. 5,″ says Allan Syms, managing director of Aromascan PLC, one of two publicly traded U.K. companies competing for a slice of the world smell market. To help solve the problem, Mr. Syms’s company is talking to Britain’s patent office about a plan that would make scent sniffers part of the patent-application process.

The new-age snouts, like some other cutting-edge technology, got their start as part of the U.S. military’s Stealth bomber program. The spy-plane experts were intrigued by certain polymers, or chains of molecules, because they conducted electricity, which helps in evading enemy radar.

While the Air Force gave up on the use of polymers for the plane, enough research was published to get scientists interested in applying the discoveries in the electronic nose market. Researchers at Britain’s Warwick University took the military work and turned it into the first nose-machine prototype in the mid-1980s.

Essentially, the electronic noses are dumb versions of people’s noses. The polymers act as spongy sensors, absorbing scent vapors and matching them with models contained in computer programs. While the machines can’t necessarily tell you whether a red wine is a Beaujolais or a Bordeaux, they can say whether a particular glass of wine smells the same as other glasses it has sniffed.

``I was impressed,″ says Robert Joseph, publishing editor of Wine Magazine, who took on an electronic nose during a blind tasting last summer. Though the machine flubbed matching one of the white wines in the tasting, it kept up with Mr. Joseph on most of the rest. ``I have seen the future,″ he wrote, ``and I have a horrible feeling that it works.″

George Dodd, a Warwick researcher and perfume designer who helped develop the first nose machine, says the applications for high-tech noses are endless. He is particularly excited about uses in medicine, where the technology may help trim costs and avoid unnecessary surgery.

One particular hot spot: breath. Doctors have long noted that the breath of some diabetics has a sweet scent. Other ailments, like liver and kidney diseases, produce their own odors, also reflected in the breath or in body odor. Because the new nose machines are much more precise than the human nose, researchers say they expect the use of breath analysis to grow.

The European Union has given Dr. Dodd a grant to look into installing tiny electronic noses in phone receivers. One vision of the future has patients telephoning the doctor, breathing into the phone and waiting on hold for a diagnosis.

At South Manchester University Hospital in Britain, newfangled noses are being tested on wounds. Researchers are convinced that infection gives off an odor. Isolate that smell, they say, and treating people with cuts and wounds could be cheaper and quicker. Andrew Parry, a researcher at the hospital, says the devices could also be used as a substitute for some lab tests.

Then there are the companies that want to use the nose to cut out people entirely. Most beverage and food producers still rely heavily on human smell panels, an expensive and subjective quality-control device. While electronic noses probably won’t replace all of the human panels, they could eliminate some. And they could take on some of the panels’ particularly nasty jobs. (Britain’s water-treatment plants, for instance, are required to set up smell panels to sniff treated sewage.)

``We see it as an aid to the taste panel,″ says John Tomlinson, a research scientist at Whitbread Breweries outside London. Whitbread was one of the first big breweries to use electronic noses to test the raw materials that go into beer. By catching bad ingredients before production starts, Whitbread can avoid having to throw out bad beer once it is made.

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