Clemson physics professor Apparao Rao and his team are developing nano-scale cantilevers that have the potential to read and alert us to toxic chemicals or gases in the air. Putting them into small handheld devices could lead to real-time chemical alerts in battle, industry, health care, and even at home. In addition to simultaneously reading multiple kinds of toxins in the environment, these electromechanical sensors have been shown to measure changes in humidity and temperature.
The current optical method of sensing uses a relatively bulky and expensive laser beam that doesn't translate well for use in nano-scale cantilevers. The Clemson method is fully electrical and uses a small AC voltage to vibrate the cantilever, and simple electronics to detect any changes in the vibration caused by gaseous chemical or biological agents. This method enables the development of handheld devices that would beep or flash as they read gas and chemical levels on site.