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Stanford researchers use household chemicals to send messages

Updated: 11 16 , 2016 15:13
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SAN FRANCISCO, Nov. 15 -- Researchers at Stanford University have built a device using household chemicals to send out binary codes and pick up the message at the other end.

The device is the brain product of Nariman Farsad, a post-doctoral fellow in the lab of Andrea Goldsmith, professor of electrical engineering at Stanford in northern California on the U.S. west coast.

Unveiled on Tuesday by the university, the system sends pulses of glass cleaner and vinegar when a desired message is typed in a small computer, and the "bits" of liquid base and acid are pumped through plastic tubes to a small container with a pH sensor.

There, as shown in a video clip, changes in pH are transmitted to a computer that deciphers the message.

Farsad chose these specific chemicals because they are easy to obtain and they cancel each other out at the receiving end of the system, according to a news release from Stanford.

"Every problem that we've addressed in traditional wireless communications over the last three or four decades is really different now because it's a different mode of communicating," Goldsmith was quoted as saying. "As so, it opens up all of these new ways of thinking about the optimal way to design this type of communication system."

Possibilities for the device's applications Goldsmith and Farsad have discussed include leaving secret messages that others wouldn't even know to look for, having robots communicate with trails of liquid text, or being able to fall back on chemical communication in the extremely unlikely scenario that our electric grid is knocked out by a terrorist attack.

For now, one of the most pressing challenges is figuring out how to separate the signal from the noise at the end of the transmission, as the chemicals leave residue behind as they move through the channel. While working to improve their current chemical texting system, the researchers are collaborating with two bioengineering groups at Stanford to make human body-friendly chemical messaging a reality.

Cost-effective nanotechnology already exists that may someday go inside the human body. But these devices are so small that, in order to communicate, they have to be wired together or else depend on high-frequency signals, which could potentially cause organ damage. As an alternative, chemical-based data exchange could be self-powered, traveling throughout the body harmlessly and undetectable by outside devices.

"This is one of the most important potential applications for this type of project," Farsad said.

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