Molecular communications: Researchers are looking at ways to broadcast messages using chemical rather than electrical signals

Molecular communications: Researchers are looking at ways to broadcast messages using chemical rather than electrical signals

Mar 8th 2014 | From the print edition

HUMANS have long experimented with how best to communicate at a distance. Smoke signals and drums date back to prehistoric times. The Romans used carrier pigeons as messengers to support their conquests. Since the early 1830s, however, communication has been dominated by electrical or electromagnetic signals, from the first telegraph to the carrier waves in fibre-optic cables and the wireless networks of cellular telephones. But now a new contender is signalling its presence: molecular communication.

Modern telecoms has limitations. In seawater, or inside oil or sewer pipelines, for instance, wireless communications are sluggish, inefficient and often too unreliable. When buildings collapse, the mix of concrete and steel debris, dust, smoke and water often renders radio useless for those who are involved in search and rescue operations. And in a world of increasingly nanoscale devices, electromagnetic communication is hampered by factors such as power consumption and the need for an antenna to transmit the signal.

An alternative solution that some researchers are looking at is to use chemical signals to carry information. Such molecular communication is widespread in nature: embryo and uterus cells communicate with each other in this way, for example, and insects and animals use it to send messages to both friends and foes. When a dog urinates repeatedly on its daily walk, the chemical markers it leaves behind tell other dogs about its gender, health and reproductive status. How often and where it leaves its messages also says a lot about the dog’s standing in the local canine hierarchy.

Building a functioning molecular-communications system that can send and receive data has proved tricky. But researchers at York University in Toronto and the University of Warwick in Britain have now done so using a battery-powered liquid sprayer, a desktop fan, a handful of breathalyser sensors, some cheap Arduino open-source electronics and an ample supply of rubbing alcohol. With this they managed to text the message “O Canada” (the title of Canada’s national anthem) four metres across a room—a first for molecular communication.

To do so the system converts text into a binary sequence using an International Telegraph Alphabet standard in which characters are represented by five binary digits (bits). The electronics control the sprayer to transmit the binary sequence using “on-off keying”: a single spray of alcoholic mist for a “1”, and no spray for a “0”. Specific bit sequences indicate the beginning and end of each message. The sensors detect increases or decreases in alcohol concentration in the air and convert that into digital data. And the fan? It helps waft the misty message across the room.

Andrew Eckford, one of the York University researchers, concedes that the set-up is not going to be streaming Netflix any time soon. After some experimentation, the optimal transmission rate for the system turned out to be one bit every three seconds, according to the results published in Public Library of Science by Dr Eckford and his colleagues Nariman Farsad, also of York University, and Weisi Guo, of the University of Warwick. That means sending “O Canada” took a somewhat leisurely two minutes to transmit. But it is a start.

Different methods of encoding the data, varying spray durations and using more sophisticated equipment would, the researchers think, increase both speed and reliability. With such fine-tuning, Dr Eckford thinks that kilobits per second is not an unreasonable goal. And if messages can one day be encoded in the molecules themselves, then bandwidth and speed would increase exponentially.

But speed is not necessarily the point. One potential use of the technology is for swarms of tiny search-and-rescue robots unleashed into a collapsed building to leave each other short molecular messages. Dr Eckford says such “chemical graffiti” could be used to describe which areas have been searched and what has been found. It might even be possible to send simple images to the surface, along with basic information about where rescuers should concentrate their efforts.

Stephen Bush, a senior scientist at GE Global Research in Niskayuna, New York, and the author of a book on nanoscale communication networks, is also enthusiastic about the technology’s potential. The advantage of molecular messaging over other sorts of communication, he says, is its ability to be deployed in hard-to-reach places, such as providing in-body communications for medical applications.

The body’s cellular signalling pathways have already been mapped, so these could serve as “communications channels”, says Dr Bush. Digital signals could be sent, say, to the vagal system to help moderate a patient’s blood pressure or heart rate. Data transmitted molecularly might also enable blood-sugar levels to be monitored without invasive pinpricks. This may be a long way off, but a shoestring experiment in Toronto has shown the message is real.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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