Engineers at the University of Massachusetts are working towards developing a tiny chemical sensor to detect toxic industrial chemicals and other hazardous gases.

The researchers have made a device the size of a computer mouse, containing gas chromatography and mass spectrometry equipment, with plans to shrink the device to matchbox size.

The device uses around four joules of energy and produces results in four seconds, compared with larger, older versions which use 10,000 joules and take 15 mins to produce results.

Team leader Professor Akintunde Ibitayo says small devices have greater sensitivity than larger versions, allowing them to detect trace amounts.

“Everything we’re doing has been done on a macro scale. We are just scaling it down,” Ibitayo says.

The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency-funded research began three years ago, micro and nanotechnology trade magazine Small Times reports.

By Elizabeth Clifford-Marsh