Camel noses inspire a new humidity sensor

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Image: Inspired by camel noses, researchers have developed a robust and sensitive moisture sensor, which is held between two gloved fingers.
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Credit: Credit: Weiguo Huang and Jian Song

Camels have the well-known ability to survive with little water. They are also adept at finding drink in the vast desert using noses, which are exquisite moisture detectors. In a new study in ACS nanoresearchers describe a moisture sensor inspired by the structure and properties of camel noses. Through experiments, they found that this device can reliably detect humidity fluctuations in environments such as industrial exhaust and the air surrounding human skin.

Humans sometimes need to detect the presence of moisture in the air, but humans are not quite as adept at sensing water with their nose as camels were. Instead, people must use devices to locate water in dry environments, or to identify leaks or analyze exhaust fumes in industrial plants. However, currently available sensors all have significant disadvantages. For example, some devices may be durable but have low sensitivity to the presence of water. At the same time, sunlight can interfere with some highly sensitive detectors, making outdoor use difficult, for example. To develop a long-lasting, smart sensor that can detect even small amounts of water molecules in the air, Weiguo Huang, Jian Song and their colleagues looked into the noses of camels.

Narrow, snail-like passages in a camel’s nose create a large surface area lined with water-absorbing mucus. To mimic the high-surface-area structure inside the nose, the team created a porous polymer network. On top of this, they placed moisture-attracting molecules called zwitterions to mimic the property of mucus to change capacity as humidity changes. In experiments, the device was durable and could monitor humidity fluctuations in hot industrial exhaust gases, find the location of a water source, and detect humidity emanating from the human body. Not only did the sensor react to changes in a person’s skin perspiration during exercise, it also recognized the presence of a human finger and could even follow its path in a V or L shape. That sensitivity suggests the device could become the basis for a non-contact interface that someone could use to communicate with a computer, the researchers said. In addition, the sensor’s electrical response to humidity can be tuned or adjusted, much like the signals sent out by human neurons – potentially allowing it to learn via artificial intelligence, they say.

The American Chemical Society (ACS) is a non-profit organization established by the US Congress. ACS’ mission is to advance the broader chemical company and its practitioners for the good of the earth and all of her people. The Society is a global leader in promoting excellence in science education and providing access to chemistry-related information and research through its diverse research solutions, peer-reviewed journals, scientific conferences, eBooks and weekly news publication Chemical & Engineering News. ACS journals are among the most cited, trusted, and widely read in the scholarly literature; However, ACS itself does not conduct any chemical research. As a leader in scientific information solutions, its CAS division works with global innovators to accelerate breakthroughs by curating, connecting and analyzing the world’s scientific knowledge. ACS principal offices are in Washington, DC and Columbus, Ohio.

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