How a beagle inspired an explosives detector

Beagles are known for their sense of smell. Image courtesy: IANS

New Delhi: Earlier this week, Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, the Union Education Minister, launched NanoSniffer, the worlds first Microsensor based Explosive Trace Detector (ETD). Developed by NanoSniff Technologies, this start-up was incubated by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Mumbai.

Made in India sensor

Moving India towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Aatmanirbhar Bharat vision, NanoSniffer is a 100 per cent made in India product in terms of research, development and manufacturing. In fact the invention's core technology is protected by patents in the US and Europe. The affordable device will significantly reduce dependency on imported explosive trace detector devices.

Providing trace detection of nano-gram quantities of explosives and delivering results in seconds, NanoSniff can accurately recognise a wide range of military, conventional, commercial and home-made explosives threats. Through analysis of the algorithms it helps in categorization of explosives into the appropriate class. It is capable of giving visible and audible alerts with sunlight-readable colour display.

Today as the world lauds the inventors of the sniffer, it has been a long haul for them before reaching this brilliant result!

The problem

Tasked with finding a way to detect bombs without involving sniffer dogs, V. Ramgopal Rao, a professor and researcher at IIT Bombay then, had been thinking about it hard. He had been assigned to do this by Rajagopala Chidambaram, Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India, as there had been a spate of blasts in late 2000s making the Government concerned about safety of its citizens and public spaces. With sniffer dogs few and expensive to train, there was an urgent need for a cheaper and faster alternative. Chidambaram chose Rao, an innovative scientist who had made a mark by finding unique solutions to tough engineering problems.

Beagle inspires bomb sniffer

Sipping tea one morning at home, Rao found his daughter Sneha playing with their pet beagle Shiloh. With the dog finding Sneha every time she hid, the little girl complained that the dog found her easily. Her mother calmed her saying that beagles are known for their sense of smell.

That was the Eureka moment for Rao. Smell, yes that was the key to his finding a device to replace sniffer dogs. Rushing to his laboratory, he declared that they are going to make an electronic nose!

As a sniffer dog's attribute to smell was a million times better than a human being, how was Rao to develop a device so sensitive. Also known as detection dogs, the sniffers are trained specially to detect explosives, wildlife, illegal drugs, blood, and even electronics by using their acute sense of smell. They play a vital role in security as they help the personnel to find out substances hidden from sight.

Having worked for months along with his team, it was the beagle incident that gave him hope.

Team effort

Roping in all the help he could, Rao touched base with Soumyo Mukherjee, from the Biotechnology Engineering department. He had collaborated with him to create a sensor to detect cardiac problems.

Roping in colleagues from other IIT departments, they modified the nano heart attack detector to develop a microscopic device which was 500 times thinner than human hair! They then developed a cantilever which would bend on sensing a specific molecule.

Perseverance pays

In 2011, Rao and his team turned the cantilever into a working sensor. It was now capable of detecting the presence of explosives at low concentrations like a few molecules. The sensor was created with silicon compounds and polymers substance and coated with a special chemical. Jubilant, the team christened the device as electronic nose or E-nose. Later, they founded a start-up NanoSniff Technologies in order to develop the sensor further and manufacture low-cost detection systems.

Humble beginning

Rao grew up in Kollapur village in Telangana and holds the singular distinction of being the first engineer from his village. Completing his post-graduation in electrical engineering, he did his Ph.D in Germany and postdoctoral studies from the US. He then moved to studying nano electronics, a branch of science that concerns itself to building and creating small and tiny devices – that can't be detected by a human eye.

Currently Rao is the Director, IIT Delhi and was present on the occasion of launch of NanoSniffer. With his inventions have resulted in two start-ups, Rao in the book "They Made What? Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Indian Scientists" penned by Shweta Taneja states: "Nothing can be done alone. It takes all kinds of scientists to solve a problem." Well said and well done!

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