by LucasFilm/NealPeters Collection, Jaime Brown, Chuck Hoyes

The robotic schnozz can sniff for bombs and air pollution, along with other simple chemicals, but it still can’t tell a smushed banana from a sprig of peppermint. Now researchers at the University of Warwick in England have hit upon a way to dramatically improve a robot’s sense of smell: synthetic snot.

Just as in the human nose, man-made mucus catches molecules and ferries them to scent receptors, which identify individual scent molecules based partially on how long it takes for each molecule to dissolve in the mucus. Molecules of paint thinner,
for instance, dissolve more slowly than those of peppermint.

The scientists report that the mucus improved the sensitivity of a conventional electronic sniffer five-fold, helped deliver results more quickly, and allowed the nose to distinguish between scents, such as milk and vanilla, that it never could before. Engineer Julian Gardner, who led the research, says electronic snot-filled noses could debut in hospitals by 2011, when they will be sensitive enough to pick up the scent of diseases such as throat or eye infections long before visible symptoms crop up.