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Wearables, IoT devices pack more chemical sensors

10 Feb 2016  | Patrick Mannion

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More than the impact generated by the Internet of Things (IoT), our desire for data and control are pushing the path of chemical sensors to a new direction. Now, chemical sensors are moving away from an assortment of multiple discrete devices into a single, easy-to-apply chip or module for the latest designs.

These days, high-speed, high-sensitivity, miniature, low-power gas and chemical sensors are being built into thermostats, digital night lights, baby monitors, and wearable devices, and their rising clout is evinced by their use in smart home and smart health applications, as well as medical and industry.

The various chemical sensor types provide molecular-level analysis of substances such as foods, medicines, gases and fuels. Typically, these sensors have been represented by full-fledged, desktop instruments that analysed and yielded a response to a chemical concentration. These sensor devices are still widely used to detect chemicals in applications such as farming, pollution control, water management, industrial safety and, of course, national security.

CCS801 gas sensor

The CCS801 gas sensor from Cambridge CMOS Sensors is designed such that the sensor processing tasks are offloaded from the main application processor to save power and improve performance.

Now there are miniature chemical sensors such as gas sensors, air quality sensors, hydrogen sensors, etc. These sensors have usually been placed outdoor in the home automation systems, mostly as temperature and weather sensors for climate control applications (humidity and storm warnings).

In short, they're going to be everywhere, so researchers and suppliers are working overtime to meet these applications' requirements by constantly pushing the envelope toward integrated micro-sensor systems, while creating combo sensor devices that cater to air quality, temperature, and for example, take the case of the CCS801 chemical sensing device from Cambridge CMOS Sensors, a multi-gas sensor that can detect alcohol and hazardous gases such as carbon monoxide (CO) and monitor volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as ethanol for indoor air quality.

CCS801 sensor

All told, the CCS801 sensor for monitoring indoor air quality from Cambridge CMOS Sensors measures just 2mm x 3mm.

The CCS801 metal-oxide gas sensor's bragging point is a fast response time due to its ability to heat the micro-hotplate to up to 500°C in under 25ms. The micro-hotplate in CCS801 is fabricated using a robust silicon dioxide membrane or sensing layer. The sensitivity to a target gas is optimised by adapting the supply voltage (VH) of the integrated micro-heater; the change in resistance of the sensing layer (RS) correlates to the gas concentration.

The CCS801 features an average power consumption of 0.9mW and can use a low-dropout (LDO) regulator to reduce the power consumption. Alternatively, it can operate in a pulsed mode, which lets you turn off the micro-heater when it's not needed, but it assumes the availability of a pulse-width-modulated (PWM) output from the MCU.

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