A team of British and Canadian researchers has developed a system to transmit text messages chemically using molecules of vodka or a range of other chemicals.
Nearly all digital communications systems send messages in binary format using electrical or electromagnetic signals, which are efficient in the open air but are difficult or impossible to use underwater, underground, in tunnels or pipes, or within the human body, according to Nariman Farsad, a Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering and computer science at York University in Toronto, Ontario.
Chemical signaling similar to those used by many plants and animals – including the pheromone-based messaging systems used by bees – function in those problematic environments far more efficiently than electrical signals.
Within the human body, for example, it might be more effective for a pacemaker and other implants to communicate with each other using chemical signals rather than radio, according to Farsad, who specializes in signals processing and molecular communication, and led the team whose work is described in “Tabletop Molecular Communication: Text Messages Through Chemical Signals,” which was published in the open-source research site PLOS One Dec. 18.
The team demonstrated the technique by sending the full text of the vodka-encoded lyrics to “O Canada” across several meters of open space between specialized sender/receivers built using about $100 worth of parts, according to a statement announcing the experiment.
It’s not the first time humans have sent messages using techniques similar to the pheromone-based communication system of bees or other animals, but it is a breakthrough in sending those long, continuous streams of data over long distances using molecular communications, according to Weisi Guo, assistant professor of engineering at Warwick University in Coventry, England.
“Imagine sending a detailed message using perfume – it sounds like something from a spy thriller novel, but in reality it is an incredibly simple way to communicate,” Guo said.
Chemical messaging wouldn’t be a good choice to replace electromagnetic signals except in pipelines, sewers, underground or other unfriendly environments in which communication is difficult but sensors monitoring the safety of those structures would be useful.
Members of the team discuss their results in a video posted here.
Full text of the paper is available as a PDF here.
Chemical-signaling sensors in sewage works or oil rigs “could prevent future disasters such as the bus-sized fatberg found blocking the London sewage networks in 2013, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010,” Guo said. “They can also be used to communicate on the nano scale, for example in medicine where recent advances mean it’s possible to embed sensors into the organs of the body or create miniature robots to carry out a specific task such as targeting drugs to cancer cells.”
The team plans to set up a company to market its technique and hardware designs to academic researchers and for a variety of industrial products.
Image: PLOS One/Farsad