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IgNobel Price WINNER: Safety in Smell.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Today’s IgNobel prize in Chemistry goes to, not a scientific publication, but a PATENT application. A patent application for a new kind of safety alarm.

A safety alarm involving WASABI.


(Source)

Goto et al. “Odor generation alarm and method for informing unusual situation” United States Patent Application number 12/735,638

We have a pretty good idea of how fire alarms work. You have a sensor for detection of smoke in the air. When smoke is detected, the sensor trips a circuit and a loud noise starts, waking you up. All’s well and good…until you’re DEAF. Or just hearing impaired and don’t have your hearing aids in. Or just a really deep sleeper.

Of course, there are specialty fire alarms for the hearing impaired. These trip a switch which turns the lights on and off, waking you up. This also is all well and good…until you’re BLIND. Or until you’re pretty used to having lights around. Additionally, it often takes more time for light to wake you up. And when you need a smoke alarm, there’s not exactly a lot of time for easy waking.

So what now? Making a fire alarm that, say, pokes you good and hard in the ribs has way too many complications. So these inventors came up with an idea of using odor. In this case, the sensor triggers a spray can, which sprays a volatile odor through a post when tripped. There is a switch on the side which can turn the device off, and the sensor could be for various situations, things like smoke, carbon monoxide, or even if you’re -80 is now -70 (as a scientist, trust me, this one is important as heck).

But the question then become what odor to use! A lot of odors are not particularly salient. The odor of food is nice, but it’s so common, how do you know it’s the fire alarm you’re smelling and not breakfast? Odors that are sweet could be easily disguised by perfumes. And good strong NASTY odors are often very nasty for a reason. Odors like formaldehyde or chloroform are strong, but they’ll also knock you out, and you won’t be in great shape to get out of the building. The trick is to find an odor that is SUPER strong, very noticeable even at low concentrations, and NOT TOXIC. You also need an odor that is strong (like, say, ethanol), volatile in air…and not combustable (using ethanol to sense a fire would be…a problem, don’t you think?).

The inventors chose allyl isothiocyanate. It’s highly volatile, and so will spread in the air easily. It doesn’t combust even when you try to light it on fire. And it’s STRONG. It’s the kind of strong that makes your head jerk back, your eyes water, and give you the desire to get the heck out of there. Seems like a good idea for an escape material. But if allyl isothiocyanate doesn’t sound familiar, you can also refer to it as CH2=CHCH3N=C=S. Not familiar? How about 3-isothiocyanate-a-propane? No.

Ok, how about mustard oil, otherwise known as the pungent odor of WASABI (weirdly, it’s also in cabbage and brussels sprouts! Who knew). Now that will make you sit up and take notice. At 1 part per MILLION of air, you can tell it’s there. At 5 parts per million, you know it’s wasabi, and at 10 parts per million, you need to leave. NOW. But despite this, wasabi smell actually isn’t toxic until you get up to 115 parts per million. The main part of this patent application was actually spent in careful studies to figure out the optimal concentration of mustard oil. What’s too low? What’s eye-burningly high? What’s just high enough to get you the heck out of dodge? These scientists found out, and then put their knowledge to use in this invention. And it turns out that wasabi is pretty ideal. Horrid to smell in high concentrations, but not harmful until the concentration is REALLY high. So even if the solution in the can gets a little to high, it’s unlikely to be harmful, and if it gets too low, you’ll still be likely to notice. And because of the strong reaction we have to smells like this, it’ll wake you up and get you out, even if you cannot hear or see. Though, if you can’t SMELL, you’re probably still SOL.

Finally, when the winners of this prize were announced, one of them sang a SONG dedicated to wasabi! And she did it in a wasabi colored dress!!! She let me get a photo after the ceremony.

Wasabi, lifesaving and lovely!

Scicurious About the Author: Scicurious is a PhD in Physiology, and is currently a postdoc in biomedical research. She loves the brain. And so should you. Follow on Twitter @Scicurious.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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