Imagine plugging a sensor into your smartphone that could check your food for pesticides— or even detect nerve gas. Researchers from a Belgian university are reporting the development of just such a sensor, an electronic nose that can sniff out dangerous chemicals like the way a breathalyzer sniffs for alcohol.

The scientists, from KU Leuven in Belgium, used a metal-organic framework to make the sensor. In other words, the sensor incorporates both metal ions and organic molecules, with the spaces in between them being key in the detection of dangerous chemicals.

"We created a [metal-organic framework] that absorbs the phosphonates found in pesticides and nerve gases,” Ivo Stassen, a researcher at KU Leuven and first author on a new study about the development, said in a statement. “This means you can use it to find traces of chemical weapons such as sarin or to identify the residue of pesticides on food.”  

The sensor, which the researchers claim is highly sensitive, could be coupled with devices that are already common, according to Rob Ameloot, an assistant professor at KU Leuven and coauthor on the new study. The research was published in the journal Chemical Science.

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“You can apply the [metal-organic framework] as a thin film over the surface of, for instance, an electric circuit,” Ameloot said in the statement. “Therefore, it’s fairly easy to equip a smartphone with a gas sensor for pesticides and nerve gas.”

Not only that, but the same technology could potentially be developed to sniff for other things— like fake wine, or even the presence of lung cancer, Ameloot added.

That sounds— or smells— like a pretty good idea.

Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger