Jan 8, 2024 - Health

Your next phone may double as an air quality monitor

Animated illustration of a smartphone with a nose sniffing smoke wafting by.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The cellphone of the future may be able to detect air quality and smoke levels near the person carrying it, alerting users about dangerous findings.

Driving the news: A startup called Mobile Physics has developed this technology, and Qualcomm and STMicroelectronics are embedding it in a forthcoming Android phone platform.

Why it matters: Air pollution is becoming a more urgent health issue for many amid a changing climate.

  • Increasingly virulent wildfires are degrading air quality across the U.S. and elsewhere.
  • Anyone who experienced last summer's orange skies knows that awareness of dangerous toxin levels will be increasingly valuable.

Details: Mobile Physics, an Israeli firm backed by Oracle founder Larry Ellison, says it can transform any cellphone into a personal "envirometer" and weather station.

  • It uses a phone's existing sensors to measure air quality, smoke levels, temperature and UV exposure.
  • If the technology detects something worrisome, it alerts the user in real time — effectively functioning as a smoke detector or fire alarm that's constantly running in the background.

"If the levels are hazardous, you will have a pop-up that says, 'Levels are high, maybe open the window," Erez Weinroth, an environmental scientist and co-founder of Mobile Physics, tells Axios.

  • It may also advise users to close a window, turn on an indoor air purifier, get out of the sun or put on a mask.

Where it stands: Mobile Physics' air quality monitoring system has been embedded within Qualcomm's new Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 mobile processor, using STMicroelectronics's direct time-of-flight (dToF) sensors.

  • Those sensors, which use light to measure distance, can detect "small particulate matter," Weinroth says.
  • Interested phone makers include Samsung, Google and Xiaomi, he adds.
  • "By sometime next year, you'll have the option of buying a phone with this capability preinstalled," predicts Stanford University professor Roger Kornberg, the 2006 Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner and chairman of Mobile Physics.

By the numbers: Air pollution causes nearly 7 million premature deaths annually, according to the World Health Organization.

  • Today's phones can display air quality and smoke data from nearby weather stations, but "the most serious source is inside the home, coming from such sources as cooking, vacuuming and hair drying," Kornberg tells Axios.
  • Most people don't give much thought to the hazards inside their homes, Weinroth says — but they should, particularly in cities, where air quality concerns are increasingly important.
  • "Now we are really able to give anyone the understanding of what is happening around them, and really help them guard their health and wellbeing," Weinroth says.

The big picture: Data recorded by "envirometer" phones will be valuable to more than just individual users

  • Mobile Physics envisions a day when millions of cellphones are (anonymously) collecting environmental readings, building a database that can be analyzed and monetized.
  • Such data could provide a rich portrait of local conditions valuable to governments, health authorities, insurance companies and others, Weinroth says.
  • People who buy such phones will be able to opt out, he adds.

Zoom in: Mobile Physics also plans to introduce a subscription version with extra tiers of information — like historical exposure levels, comparisons between a user's exposure levels and that of other people in their city, etc.

  • Such details might be particularly valuable to people with asthma or other respiratory diseases.
  • People could use it to "see if they need to ventilate their houses more, or to determine where they can go running," Weinroth says.

The bottom line: It's easy to foresee a day when this type of information becomes standard on our phones.

  • "My mission was really to figure out what people are being exposed to, the pollution they are breathing," Weinroth says.
  • "I am super enthusiastic and excited that we are really on the verge of helping everyone who has a phone."
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