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Worrying about whether or not the coronavirus, or any virus, is lingering on a door handle, a table surface, or is, in fact, already in your system, is something that’s become second nature over the past year.

However, General Electric (GE) scientists will now be focusing their attention on developing tiny sensors that fit into your smartphone and other smart devices like smartwatches, to detect COVID-19 on surfaces. 

The company was awarded a two-year grant by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to work on the sensors, with the hope of expanding the types of viruses they can detect further down the line. 

As Radislav Potyrailo, a principal scientist at GE Research and principal investigator on the NIH project, said in GE’s press releaseOne of the first lines of defense against any virus is avoiding exposure, which is easier said than done when you can’t see it.”

Being able to detect a virus before it enters someone’s system is crucial to curbing its quick spread, but as Potyrailo explained, being able to detect such small, specific particles is no easy task. 

How the GE team will develop the sensor

The multidisciplinary team’s work builds upon a decade-long amount of research around sensing technologies. Scientists have already developed tiny sensors that are smaller than a fingertip, and that have similar sensing capabilities as high-end detection devices the size of a microwave. 

The team will train the sensors to detect the specific coronavirus — something that is tricky given how many other small particles are floating around us or sticking onto surfaces. Think flakes of skin or pollen. 

But Potyrailo and GE’s team believe that over the next two years they’ll be able to configure the sensor to detect just one virus particle at a time.

The question about how long the sensor would be valid for floats to mind, but that’ll surely be answered when GE launches its new technology if research goes as planned. 

Some apps and smartphone sensors already work to analyze air quality or in certain healthcare contexts, as glucose monitors, and more. So why not create some that detect specific viruses, too?

GE isn’t the first organization to try and integrate sensors into smartphones to detect COVID-19, a Caltech team worked on a five-cent sensor last year that detects the virus in just 10 minutes. That said, Caltech’s tech required saliva or a drop of blood to operate, so GE’s version is a novel concept.

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