Tiny sensors developed by HKUST team aim to keep an eye on the air in your office

Tiny chips will monitor the air to create a better environment for workers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 May, 2015, 2:38am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 May, 2015, 2:38am

Ever wondered if your headaches are caused by the stuffy office you work in? Or why the air conditioning in many workplaces is set at bone-chilling temperatures?

A research team at the University of Science and Technology is looking to address these problems and more with the development of a multifunctional sensor that can be fitted in offices to detect temperature, humidity, motion in the room and harmful gases in the air.

The sensors will gather data needed to formulate energy-saving plans for a given workplace to create a better environment for its inhabitants.

Professor Amine Bermak from the university's department of electronic and computer engineering has been working since January on the project with four other professors in Hong Kong and another three at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States.

The idea has received HK$9.8 million from the government's Innovation and Technology Fund, which supports research and development projects.

"The key idea is to produce it at very low cost and have it run on very little power," Bermak said.

Such sensors should be small, cheap and require no battery, he said, making it viable to install thousands in a single office to create a "smart green building".

The self-powered sensors are adequate in sensing motion but not good enough to identify a face. This allows a sensor to determine the number of people in a room, which together with temperature readings will decide how much lighting and air conditioning are necessary at a given moment.

They can also identify several gases that pose health risks, including the carbon dioxide exhaled by humans - too much of which can lead to headaches and dizziness - and carbon monoxide, which can play a part in slower learning and planning abilities, and even fainting and death.

Other identifiable gases are total volatile organic compounds from paints and disinfectants - which can irritate the eyes, nose and throat and cause damage to the central nervous system - and cancer-causing formaldehyde, which comes from construction materials and furniture.

Bermak said the aim was to have the data sent wirelessly to users. "You walk into your office, you have your mobile phone, and info will pop up on it telling you the temperature."

The team will spend two years on research for the sensor, and another two years developing applications for it.

Bermak's previous work includes development of a temperature sensor that costs less than 50 US cents.