The August 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Nose Works Like a Scanning Tunneling Microscope

Researchers upend understanding of olfactory organs with quantum tunneling experiment

3 min read

14 February 2011—Flash memory, scanning tunneling microscopes...and a fly’s sense of smell. According to new research, the same strange phenomenon—quantum tunneling—makes all three possible. If confirmed, the discovery could pave the way for a new generation of artificial scents, from perfumes to pheromones—and, perhaps someday, artificial noses.

The conventional theory of smell holds that the nose’s chemical receptors—some 400 different kinds in a human nose—sense the presence of odorant molecules by a lock-and-key process that reads the odorant’s physical shape. That theory has some problems, though. For instance, ethanol (which smells like vodka) and ethanethiol (which smells like rotten eggs) have essentially the same shape, differing from each other by only a single atom. (Ethanol is C2H6O, and ethanethiol is C2H6S.)

Keep Reading ↓Show less

This article is for IEEE members only. Join IEEE to access our full archive.

Join the world’s largest professional organization devoted to engineering and applied sciences and get access to all of Spectrum’s articles, podcasts, and special reports. Learn more →

If you're already an IEEE member, please sign in to continue reading.

Membership includes:

  • Get unlimited access to IEEE Spectrum content
  • Follow your favorite topics to create a personalized feed of IEEE Spectrum content
  • Save Spectrum articles to read later
  • Network with other technology professionals
  • Establish a professional profile
  • Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
  • Discover IEEE events and activities
  • Join and participate in discussions

Restoring Hearing With Beams of Light

Gene therapy and optoelectronics could radically upgrade hearing for millions of people

13 min read
A computer graphic shows a gray structure that’s curled like a snail’s shell. A big purple line runs through it. Many clusters of smaller red lines are scattered throughout the curled structure.

Human hearing depends on the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure in the inner ear. A new kind of cochlear implant for people with disabling hearing loss would use beams of light to stimulate the cochlear nerve.

Lakshay Khurana and Daniel Keppeler
Blue

There’s a popular misconception that cochlear implants restore natural hearing. In fact, these marvels of engineering give people a new kind of “electric hearing” that they must learn how to use.

Natural hearing results from vibrations hitting tiny structures called hair cells within the cochlea in the inner ear. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged or dysfunctional parts of the ear and uses electrodes to directly stimulate the cochlear nerve, which sends signals to the brain. When my hearing-impaired patients have their cochlear implants turned on for the first time, they often report that voices sound flat and robotic and that background noises blur together and drown out voices. Although users can have many sessions with technicians to “tune” and adjust their implants’ settings to make sounds more pleasant and helpful, there’s a limit to what can be achieved with today’s technology.

Keep Reading ↓Show less
{"imageShortcodeIds":[]}