In 2010, researchers at Stony Brook University in New York began testing the device with diabetic patients in preclinical trials -- to see if the breathalyzer could detect certain biomarkers that lead to the diagnosis of certain health problems.
The device works by an individual blowing into a small valve attached to a box approximately half the size of a normal shoebox -- and weighs less than a pound. Once breath is detected, the lights on the top of the box instantly react in relation to any detected biomarkers -- signs of disease.
If they turn green, there are no problems. If the lights turn red, it may be indicative of a problem that a doctor needs to investigate.
Supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), Professor Perena Gouma and her team at the university developed the sensor chip which lies at the heart of the breathalyzer's capabilities. It is coated in minuscule nanowires that can detect minute amounts of chemical compounds contained within the breath.
"These nanowires enable the sensor to detect just a few molecules of the disease marker gas in a 'sea' of billions of molecules of other compounds that the breath consists of. This is what nanotechnology is all about."
The sensor was created by a process called electrospinning -- which involves shooting a liquid compound into an electrical field, solidifying the composition in to wires. These nanowires can be created using different configurations of atoms, so individual conditions (and biomarkers) could be detected through altering this component of the breathalyzer.
"There can be different types of nanowires, each with a tailored arrangement of metal and oxygen atoms along their configuration so as to capture a particular compound," Gouma says.
"For example, some nanowires might be able to capture ammonia molecules, while others capture just acetone and others just the nitric oxide. Each of these biomarkers signal a specific disease or metabolic malfunction, so a distinct diagnostic breathalyzer can be designed."
If the device proves successful in clinical trials, then the applications of this technology could be wide-ranging enough to detect microbes and viruses -- including E. Coli and anthrax. Potentially, the device could be available within years with a cost of less than $20 to produce.