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In 2013, York scientists figured out a way to use a vodka mist to send pheremone-inspired text messages. It’s a revolutionary new kind of message – chemically encoded instead of using electrical current or radio waves. Their first message, sent a few metres across a lab table, was 10101100111000101011110110  code for “O CANADA.”

Dec. 18, 2013  After successfully text messaging “O Canada” using evaporated vodka, two York University researchers and their U.K.-based counterpart say their simple system can be used where conventional wireless technology fails.

“Chemical signals can offer a more efficient way of transmitting data inside tunnels, pipelines or deep underground structures,” said Professor Andrew Eckford of York’s Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science. “For example, the recent massive clog in the London sewer system could have been detected earlier on, and without all the mess workers had to deal with, by sending robots equipped with a molecular communication system.”

The experiment was conducted in Eckford’s lab, where the team was able to send alcohol (derived from vodka in this case) four metres across the room with the aid of a tabletop fan. It was then demodulated by a receiver that measured the rate of change in concentration of the alcohol molecules, picking up whether the concentration was increasing or decreasing.

“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 alphabet, with a single spray representing bit 1 and no spray representing the bit 0,” said York U doctoral candidate Nariman Farsad, who led the experiment.

Though use of chemical signals is a new method in human communication technology, the biocompatible method is very common in the animal kingdom. Bees, for example, use chemicals in pheromones to communicate when there is a threat to the hive, and so do the Canadian lnyx when marking their territory.

In an article, “Tabletop Molecular Communication: Text Messages Through Chemical Signals,” in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, the researchers say their system also fills a major gap in molecular communication literature by providing an inexpensive platform for testing theoretical models. This allows researchers to gain real-world experience with molecular communication, cheaply and easily.

“Our system shows that reliable communication is possible, and our work motivates future studies on more realistic modelling, analysis and design of theoretical models and algorithms for molecular communication systems,” said engineering Professor Weisi Guo, University of Warwick, who initiated the research during a meeting with Eckford last year. He added, “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 specific tasks like targeting drugs to cancer cells.”

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