An electronic nose (e-nose) is a device that identifies the specific components of an odor and analyzes its chemical makeup to identify it. An electronic nose consists of a mechanism for chemical detection, such as an array of electronic sensors, and a mechanism for pattern recognition, such as a neural network. Electronic noses have been around for several years but have typically been large and expensive. Current research is focused on making the devices smaller, less expensive, and more sensitive. The smallest version, a nose-on-a-chip is a single computer chip containing both the sensors and the processing components.
An odor is composed of molecules, each of which has a specific size and shape. Each of these molecules has a correspondingly sized and shaped receptor in the human nose. When a specific receptor receives a molecule, it sends a signal to the brain and the brain identifies the smell associated with that particular molecule. Electronic noses based on the biological model work in a similar manner, albeit substituting sensors for the receptors, and transmitting the signal to a program for processing, rather than to the brain. Electronic noses are one example of a growing research area called biomimetics, or biomimicry, which involves human-made applications patterned on natural phenomena.
Electronic noses were originally used for quality control applications in the food, beverage and cosmetics industries. Current applications include detection of odors specific to diseases for medical diagnosis, and detection of pollutants and gas leaks for environmental protection.