Michael Warwick is an inorganic chemistry PhD student at the University College London, where he researches intelligent window glazings to reduce energy demand from buildings. He tells us about chemical sensors, why E-Noses might help us fight cancer, and how his work brought him to Bestival to invite revelLers to burp into a phone. 

Michael Warwick and Richard Briggs (and the mascot Frank), all looking very smoochable indeed.

After a long journey involving taxis, a plane, one train, a car and a ferry, Richard and I arrived at Bestival. Early on Saturday morning we dragged ourselves out of our sleeping bags and headed over to the Tomorrow’s World field to find the Guerilla Science tent, where we would engage with fellow festival goers about science.

What were we going to talk about?

Crudely: burping.

Or, more precisely: gas sensing and the use of gas sensor devices for use in portable electronic noses (E-Noses).

The holy grail of such research would be the ability to sniff out specific volatile organic compounds – gases that tend to be a bit smelly and are largely produced by living things, such as methane (a prominent component of farts – you know the smell), alcohol, and formaldehyde. Being able to pinpoint specific VOCs means we could detect explosives, chemical and biological weapons, drugs – or even cancer.

Although dogs have already been trained to do a lot of these tasks – including cancer – they are expensive to keep, take a lot of training, and require regular rest periods. The other problem with dogs is that they cannot tell you what they are sniffing – there are frequent stories in the news of people discovering they have a tumour because their dog began to behave strangely towards the diseased body part.

The use of gas sensors in portable e-noses, while exciting, is a long way off from fully working devices. At Bestival we showed off a prototype gas sensor which can pick up specific VOCs. An E-Nose, on the other hand, would contain many of these sensors and use them to distinguish between complex mixtures of VOCs produced in real-life situations.

As the bacteria living in your mouth release VOCs, we decided that the best use for our sensor at a festival was to see whose burp contained the most VOCs – and therefore establish who had the most bacteria living in their mouth. The smelliest breath, if you will.

We managed to get several volunteers (some willing, some less so!) up on stage. Each one burped into our sensor, and we analysed how smelly their burp was: the winner received a worm-laced lolly pop.

Also, for our amusement, Rich kindly donated his phone so we could record the volume of the burps (Rich also donated his own can of cider as a prize).

The winner!

Everyone seemed pleased to discover how dirty and loud their breath really was (and we were happy as no one had gone too far by throwing up on our sensor). I was especially happy as Rich’s phone smelt of burp for the rest of the weekend (this amused him less).

Afterwards there was only one thing left to do: grab a beer and enjoy Bestival. Being a fancy dress festival, with the theme “Rock Stars, Pop Stars & Divas,” we had no choice but to dress as Kylie Minogue (Rich) and Christina Aguilera (myself).