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Wasabi Fire Alarm

So the house is on fire and smoke is filling up the kitchen while you sleep. The smoke alarm is whining away trying to warn you, but you took your hearing aid off before you laid down to rest. Oh, and did I mention that you are a heavy sleeper…now what? What do you do when your sense of hearing, seeing, touching, and tasting all fail (which is very likely especially when you are asleep)? Answer: you rely on your sense of smell—I guess you can rely on a fire alarm that pokes you while you are asleep, but that’s a little impractical. By the time the smoke or carbon monoxide (which you can’t smell) reaches your bedroom and gets into your nose, it may or may not be too late, but who wants to take that risk?

But then the follow-up question is: which volatile odor is strong or potent enough to wake you up from a deep sleep. You can’t use a sweet or otherwise nice smell because you would probably just think its something non-threatening on the stove or in the oven. It could be a “nasty” smell, but you could probably just ignore that if you were sleeping deeply enough. Chemicals that are very volatile would work, if they didn’t knock you out. So after doing multiple tests scientists came to the consensus that you need something non-toxic, volatile in low concentrations, and won’t combust.

Scientists found a substance that is so strong that it makes you whip your head back, pucker your cheeks, involuntarily cry, and makes you believe you can breath fire out of your mouth and nose. This magic substance was…(pause for dramatic effect)…ALLYL ISOTHIOCYANATE. If you are still scratching your head you may know this infamous, maybe soon to be lifesaver, as WASABI.

How would you react if you got some wasabi in your nose, chances are you would probably get up immediately and start running (which is the most effective thing to do I’ve found in a fire). “At 1 part per MILLION of air, you can tell it’s there. At 5 parts per million, you know it’s wasabi, and at 10 parts per million, you need to leave. NOW. But despite this, wasabi smell actually isn’t toxic until you get up to 115 parts per million.” (Scicurious Brain) These measurements are actually the results of careful experimentation so the researchers know exactly what’s too low a concentration, what’s too high, and what’s just enough so you react and know to get out fast.

I mainly found this article to be interesting because most people know the effects of wasabi, but it wasn’t until I read the article did I actually start to consider how useful it could be in our everyday lives. My grandpa was hearing impaired and only noticed that the fire alarm was going off when the TV shut off (when he was watching it). Who knows, wasabi fire/Carbon monoxide alarms could be the next generation of fire safety around the globe. Obviously the alarm would still sound and flicker the lights, if set to do so, but the added smell would actually be useful to those who are seeing or hearing impaired

What did Sushi A say to Sushi B….”Wasssaaaa B”

Scicurious Brain. (2011, September 30). IgNobel Price WINNER: Safety in Smell.Scientific American. Retrieved October 2, 2011, from http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/scicurious-brain/2011/09/30/ignobel-price-winner-safety-in-smell/

  1. October 3, 2011 at 1:56 am

    I actually think this would be a great idea because at our house our fire house alarm sound matches some sounds that some technology makes when it malfunctions, making it difficult to tell whats a fire alarm and whats something malfunctioning. Sometime our fire alarm would go off and me and my brother wouldn’t move just cause we thought something just broke. So it would be cool to have some other notification like that unique wasabi smell to let us know to get out. And this idea rings home come cause when I was in 4th grade my house burnt down and if we had been inside at the time we might not have moved to get out. I hope that this idea goes to manufacturing.

  2. October 3, 2011 at 4:27 am

    I think this is an extremely interesting piece. Using sense of smell to wake someone up and warn them is a great idea. I’m interested as to how wasabi was chosen and not the typical ammonium carbonate (smelling salts). Would you need to replenish or replace the chemicals? Can you create a switch to allow only the sound and lights to work and not the wasabi? There are certainly many routes to go with this idea, and I’m excited to see this idea get on track.

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