Emerging Tests

Technological Breakthroughs: NASA Begins Testing of Handheld COVID-19 Breathalyzer Device

A portable, handheld, easy-to-use breathalyzer device capable of accurately detecting the SARS-CoV-2 at the point of care would represent a game changer for COVID-19 diagnostics. And while inventing such a device is not exactly rocket science, the U.S. has called on its rocket scientists to make it happen. Last month, NASA announced plans to begin testing a prototype of such a device.

The Diagnostic Challenge

With the coronavirus in retreat, the priority for COVID-19 diagnostics developers is to create rapid and accurate point-of-care testing performed on a mass basis on both the symptomatic and asymptomatic. The current tests addressing this need are based on technology for detecting SARS-CoV-2 antibodies and antigen. While suitable for screening purposes, antibody and antigen testing is relatively lacking in sensitivity and accuracy. The label “rapid” also belies the fact that these tests do take minutes to process and do not deliver results immediately the way many tests do.

All of this makes it worthwhile to explore the potential to develop new modalities using different biomarkers to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus. One candidate is exhaled volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that could be detected via a rapid breath test.

The E-Nose Breathalyzer

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) gave NASA $3.8 million to test a prototype of such a device called the E-Nose that was originally developed measure the quality of air inside a spacecraft. But Tennessee subcontractor Variable Inc., the firm that created the device, has reconfigured it for COVID-19 screening. Specifically, the E-Nose is designed to “sniff out” the signature VOCs of the virus in the breath of people who are infected.

It took Variable six months to develop the electronics and packaging for the smartphone-based device and Bluetooth functionality and a paired mobile app that processes, displays and transmits sensor data. Variable created the original device with funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to detect toxic gases that terrorists might try to inject into the capsule of a manned spacecraft.

Like the original DHS version, the COVID-detecting E-Nose integrates nanosensor technology invented by NASA scientist Jing Li. But the bulky instruments used to detect harmful gases need to be streamlined into a lightweight, portable, hand-held device that could be used easily in both a clinical and home setting. The key to the conversion was scaling and packaging the sensors.

The Testing

Having received the device from Variable, NASA now has to refine the sensors so they can detect the target COVID-19 VOCs more effectively. The NASA team is working with researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the Lawrence Livermore National Lab to study the VOCs associated with SARS-CoV-2 infections. The prototype design allows for swapping out the sensor chips as necessary to make adjustments in response to what the research team learns about the VOCs. Once they identify what they believe to be the virus’ biosignature, they will take readings of healthy individuals and people with other types of infection, followed by field testing and clinical trials to demonstrate the device’s sensitivity and specificity.

Ultimately, data from the E-Nose would be incorporated with body temperature and other symptoms for analysis by NASA’s advanced machine learning programs to yield an immediate and more accurate means of detecting COVID-19.


It may not be the final frontier, but VOC-based detection has the potential to take rapid COVID-19 screening to a new dimension in both speed and accuracy. And right now, the E-Nose occupies a prime position on the launching pad. If it all works out, the “E-Nose can be deployed in factories, airports, grocery stores, and businesses of all sorts to rapidly screen for active infections,” says technology inventor Li. “It’s a noninvasive and rapid way to keep our communities safe as this pandemic continues.”


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