Eighteen-year-old Zheng Xin Yong, from Malaysia, was stunned when he learned his nonsmoking math teacher had advanced lung cancer. That’s why, for his Google Science Fair project, he set out to develop a low-cost, easy-to-use screening test for early stage lung cancer.
He came up with a combination of tetracosane and carbon powder that changes resistance according to alkane levels in air. Alkane, sometimes called paraffin, is a naturally occurring product of oxidation and is dramatically higher in the breath of people with lung cancer than those with healthy lungs.
Yong says each sensor costs about 15 U.S. cents to produce, and his entire breathalyzer-style system costs about $15; the only comparable device he’s seen is an electronic nose that costs thousands of dollars, he says.
To date, Yong has successfully tested his system on 37 subjects, 12 lung cancer patients, 12 chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients, and 13 nonsmokers without known lung disease. He’s hoping his research reduces the use of CT scans for lung cancer screening and increases the rate of screening in general.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.