"Imagine sending a detailed message using perfume," says Weisi Guo. "[I]t sounds like something from a spy thriller novel, but in reality it is an incredibly simple way to communicate." (Credit: ne0pix/Flickr)

Team transmits message ‘written’ in molecules

With a new method of molecular communications, scientists sent a signal across several meters of open space, where a receiver decoded it.

The researchers have developed the capability to transform any generic message into binary signals, which in turn is “programmed” into evaporated alcohol molecules to demonstrate the potential of molecular communications.

The first demonstration signal was performed in Canada and was “O Canada,” from the Canadian national anthem. The hardware is made from off-the-shelf electronics and costs around $100.

The molecular communications system could have potential for the transmission of messages and data in challenging environments, such as where electromagnetic waves cannot be used, such as tunnels, pipelines, underwater, and within the body.

Molecular signaling is a common feature of the plant and animal kingdom—insects for example use pheromones for long-range signaling—but to date continuous data have not been transmitted.

How to use molecular communications

The scientists believe the simple system could have a wide variety of applications, ranging from communication in hostile underground environments to nanotechnology.

“We believe we have sent the world’s first text message to be transmitted entirely with molecular communication, controlling concentration levels of the alcohol molecules, to encode the alphabets with single spray representing bit 1 and no spray representing the bit 0,” says York University doctoral candidate Nariman Farsad, who led the experiment.

Weisi Guo from the School of Engineering at the University of Warwick says: “Imagine sending a detailed message using perfume—it sounds like something from a spy thriller novel, but in reality it is an incredibly simple way to communicate.

“Of course people have achieved short ranged signaling using chemicals, but we have gone to the next level and successfully communicated continuous and generic messages over several meters.

“Signaling or cues are something we see all the time in the natural world—bees for example use chemicals in pheromones to signal to others when there is a threat to the hive.

“In the modern human world, our method won’t replace electromagnetic waves which transmit the bulk of our data, but there are some areas where conventional communications systems are not particularly well-adapted.

“For example, inside tunnels, pipelines, or deep underground structures, chemical signals can offer a more efficient way of transmitting sensor data, such as those collected to monitor the health of structures and processes.

“Potential targeted applications include wireless monitoring of sewage works and oil rigs. This could prevent future disasters such as the bus-sized ‘fatberg’ found blocking the London sewage networks in 2013, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.”

“They can also be used to communicate on the nanoscale, for example in medicine where recent advances mean it’s possible to embed sensors into the organs of the body or create miniature robots to carry out a specific task such as targeting drugs to cancer cells.

“On these tiny scales and in special structural environments, there are constraints with electromagnetic signals such as the ratio of antenna size to the wavelength of the signal, which chemical communication does not have.

“Molecular communication signals are also biocompatible and require very little energy to generate and propagate.”

The results appear in PLOS ONE. The team will now set up a company that aims to bring a range of academic and industrial products to the market.

Source: University of Warwick

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