Published: 16 June 2016

Smartphone sensors that detect disease

A collaboration between Surrey and the Technische Universitat Munchen has developed tiny infrared lasers that are viable for use as sensors in smartphones.

The research points to a reliable, low cost laser technology that has the potential to be used in compact sensors for early indication of disease through breath analysis, and also to detect pollution in the atmosphere.

The research team has demonstrated that using Vertical Cavity Surface Emitting Lasers (VCSELs), it is possible to create devices that can operate in the important infrared spectral range. In this range, it is possible to detect a wide range of gases which can indicate, amongst other things, early indicators of illness.

Crucially, the team has succeeded in developing VCSELs that operate reliably at room temperature while being insensitive to changes in the ambient temperature. The semiconductor-based lasers, which are similar to those typically used in computer mice, can be produced at very low cost.

Leading the research at Surrey, Professor Stephen Sweeney of the Department of Physics and the Advanced Technology Institute, said: “This research is the first crucial step in developing technology that will potentially enable the development of portable sensors incorporated into smartphones. Such sensors can monitor the ambient air mixture, for example in breath, which contains chemical markers of a wide range of diseases including some cancers. The same technology could be used to monitor pollution and give users information about urban pollution hotspots, making use of the mobile phone network.

“We’ve known for some time that the mid-infrared spectrum is the place where many gases absorb light. What’s exciting about this research is that it makes this possibility economically viable by enabling the sensors to be created at low cost and used in a user’s ordinary home and working environment.”

Surrey researchers are now working on widening the wavelength range of the sensors to detect more gases and to develop the first prototype system.

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