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Tapping Out a Message in Chemicals

Posted on November 23rd, 2016 by in New Materials & Applications

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Image by Cqeme (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Like a scene from a Hollywood science fiction blockbuster where the protagonists once again rally using Morse Code after all other means of communication have been destroyed, researchers have found a way to send messages using chemicals.

Whether hard wired or wireless, contemporary communication systems rely on electricity. Despite their technological sophistication and commercial pervasiveness, applications remain where these transmissions are ineffective or even harmful. Signals degrade in areas with a high density of metal and high concentrations of electromechanical waves can damage human tissue.

Researchers at Stanford are on the cutting edge of an innovative communication system using chemicals to carry the signal as opposed to electrons. Much like electronic communication via land lines, cellular towers, or across the Internet, binary messages of 1’s and 0’s are encoded for transmission. Unlike digitally, pulses of acid (vinegar) or base (glass cleaner) are then relayed between computers that encode/decode the message. Changes in pH are detected to discern the message.

The first chemical texting system built by Nariman Farsad, postdoc in computer engineering and computer science at York University in Ontario, Canada, used vodka to carry the message. During testing he found the saturation of vodka would build up over time at the receiving end making detection impossible. A phenomenon frequently encountered by those doing shots at a bar on Saturday night. Farsad chose the new combination of chemicals because they are readily available and they tend to cancel each other out at the receiver – chemically resetting the system.

While impractical to replace the cellular system we use daily with a network carrying chemical pulses, there are many applications where this novel approach has merit. Most notable in the field of advanced medicine, electromechanical waves damage human tissue and have difficulty propagating. Chemical systems can be used for communication with implanted devices or for drug delivery systems. Since the human body already uses chemicals for communication between cells, could potentially leverage an already existing network eliminating the possibility of foreign rejection in the host. Seems Fantastic Voyage is becoming more science and less fiction.

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All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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