Smartphones could detect pollution, thanks to a sensor breakthrough

A recent discovery by Australian and Chinese scientists could allow smartphones to detect dangerous levels of air pollution. 

AP Photo/Joshua Paul
Malaysia's landmark building Kuala Lumpur Tower, center, and other commercial buildings are shrouded with haze in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015. Malaysian authorities reported that nine areas in Malaysia hit an unhealthy API (air pollution index).

Monitoring air pollution around the world is a laborious, if not impossible task for the average citizen. Last year, the World Health Organization estimated toxic air pollution was responsible for around 7 million “premature deaths,” and called for an international effort to clean up the air.

In countries like India and China, which are home to the top two most polluted cities in the world – New Delhi and Beijing – the US Embassy offers a daily reading of particulate matter (P.M.) levels on its website. Anyone monitoring the site can keep an eye on the best time to go for a run – or sometimes, just to step outside.

But a new method developed by Australian and Chinese scientists might be revolutionizing our ability to stay informed about toxic pollution levels through a smartphone app that can detect dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide in the air.

A recent discovery by scientist Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh at RMIT’s Centre for Advanced Electronics and Sensors in Melbourne found that tin disulphide can be used to detect nitrogen dioxide levels – one of the most toxic forms of pollution.

According to the report, the tin can be manufactured cheaply (costing roughly one Australian dollar per sensor unit) , and can be used to make personalized, individual sensors. Although scientists are still working to develop software, the method has already been proven to work using sensors that absorb nitrogen dioxide gas molecules onto flecks of tin disulphide.

Air pollution is a lingering threat that, as of this year, is on the rise. A global problem, air pollution is most serious in parts of Southeast Asia, the Western Pacific region, and the eastern Mediterranean. In 2012, an estimated 3.7 million deaths were attributed by the World Health Organization to air pollution – the number has since climbed to seven million in 2014.

While countries have taken measures in recent years to reduce air pollution, the challenges still outweigh the triumphs.

One of the biggest problems with air pollution is its invisibility. It's not always possible to see when the air is dangerous. Which is why a sensor for a smartphone is a step in a groundbreaking, and promising, direction. The discovery was released Tuesday morning, but the team of scientists is hopeful an app will be developed soon. Their goal is to keep the cost of monitoring air pollution levels low and to keep it as accessible as possible to the public.

“A lack of public access to effective monitoring tools is a major roadblock to mitigating the harmful effects of this gas but current sensing systems are either very expensive or have serious difficulty distinguishing it from other gases,” Mr. Kalantar-zadeh said in a report issued by RMIT University. “The method we have developed is not only more cost-effective, it also works better than the sensors currently used to detect this dangerous gas.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Smartphones could detect pollution, thanks to a sensor breakthrough
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today