A molecular messaging system capable of transmitting data over several meters has been built using off-the-shelf materials costing around US$100 and some vodka. The system mimics chemical signalling seen in nature and has potential applications for communications in environments not compatible with conventional wireless technologies, such as underwater, in tunnels and pipelines, as well as at the nano scale and within the body.

“People have achieved short ranged signalling using chemicals [before], but we have gone to the next level and successfully communicated continuous and generic messages over several meters,” says Dr Weisi Guo from the School of Engineering at the University of Warwick, which teamed up with York University in Canada for the project.

The first message sent was "O Canada," a line from the Canadian national anthem. Using evaporated vodka to transmit the binary data was relatively simple. The team encoded the alphabet in binary using a single spray of alcohol to represent bit 1 and no spray a bit 0.

With the help of a tabletop fan, the maiden molecular message was successfully sent from the transmitter, across the lab over a distance of four meters (13 ft) to a receiver, which measured the rate of change in concentration of the alcohol molecules.

"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," says York University doctoral candidate Nariman Farsad.

Although the researchers admit the technology won't replace electromagnetic waves as the dominant wireless communication technology, they says it could find uses in places where electromagnetic waves struggle.

“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," says Dr Guo. “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.”

The researchers also believe the technique could be applied on the nano scale where electromagnetic signalling can be problematic.

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

The team has published their study in the journal PLOS ONE and intends to set up a company to commercialize the technology.

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