NSF Workshop

Chemical sensing with an olfaction analogue:
high-dimensional, bio-inspired sensing and computation

October 7-14, 2022 (virtual)

Submit your application by September 6, 2022 August 15, 2022 


Biological olfaction. Biological olfactory systems are the most exquisite chemical detectors on the planet. Yet, unlike other sensory systems (e.g., vision, hearing), whose artificial analogues have revolutionized society (e.g., image & speech recognition), mimicking olfaction remains a grand challenge.  This is in part due to the fact that olfaction is very high-dimensional (an estimated 400 olfactory receptor genes), very redundant (~10,000 olfactory receptor neurons per gene), and that olfactory coding is combinatorial: an odorant can be detected by multiple ORs and each OR can detect multiple odorants.

Machine olfaction. Biologically-inspired design principles have been used to develop chemical sensor systems since at least 1982, when Persaud & Dodd proposed the first “electronic nose” based on the mammalian olfactory system. Their central principle was to use an array of broadly-tuned chemosensors (rather than a single specialized sensor), with analyte selectivity arising from the response pattern across the array. This principle remains the state of the art, but has been severely limited by available single-output sensor technologies and the variety of sensitivity profiles that they provide.

This is changing.  New technologies have emerged over the past decade that make it possible to develop high-dimensional and highly diverse arrays of chemosensors.  Emerging technologies include sensors based on biological olfactory receptors, micro-analytical systems using nanophotonics and MEMS, and multiparameter and higher-order sensors.  These advances have been paralleled by new computational models of odor processing in the biological systems, and advances in neuromorphic hardware to efficiently process high-dimensional data. In concert, these advances offer tremendous potential for new breakthroughs in chemical sensor systems that until recently were technically implausible.

Significance. Developing chemical sensor systems that can rival their biological counterparts in sensitivity and selectivity could have major societal impact, including applications in environmental monitoring, healthcare, quality control of food and beverages, precision agriculture, and homeland security.  Further, these advances would make it feasible to predict human olfactory perceptions from sensor responses, arguably the Turing test for machine olfaction.


The workshop. To address this issue, we are organizing a workshop for the National Science Foundation (NSF) to explore opportunities from emerging high-dimensional and bio-inspired ACSs that are ready for translation, and to identify application areas in which they can have the greatest societal impact. The workshop will be highly interactive, and will provide a variety of divergent and convergent thinking activities, to be performed in small groups and individually.  The goal of the workshop is to create a comprehensive 3-year roadmap for NSF to create funding opportunities for translational research in chemical sensor systems through their Convergence Accelerator program.

The workshop will be held online, over the course of four half-days, as follows (times are in US Pacific):

  • Friday, October 7, 2022 (8am-10am) – Microlab 
  • Tuesday, October 11, 2022 (8am-12noon) – Virtual Session 1  
  • Thursday, October 13, 2022 (8am-12noon) – Virtual Session 2 
  • Friday, October 14, 2022 (8am-12noon) – Virtual Session 3

The workshop is organized in collaboration with Know Innovation by:

Themes.  The themes of the workshop will be discussed using a waterfall process technique, where one decision leads to the next:

  • Minilab: This will be a Meet and Greet event, where we will introduce the aims of the workshop, its objectives, and provide opportunities for participants to interact with each other.
  • Stage 1: Specifications.  It is critical to define the key requirements and specifications for the volatile chemical sensors and sensor systems of the future. What properties would we like our systems to evolve into in the next 2, 5 and 10 years?
  • Stage 2: Sensors and sensor systems. This will be the main activity of the workshop, and will be divided into five key aspects: Sample delivery, Biological sensors, Microanalytical instruments, Multiparameter sensors, and Computational analysis.
  • Stage 3: Applications. In this stage, we will identify application areas where this technology could have societal impact in 2-, 5- and 10-year timeframes, as well as drivers for step changes in technology.

Potential attendees.  We invite participation from a broad range of disciplines, including basic science (materials science, biochemistry, sensory perception, neuroscience, analytical chemistry), engineering (bio- and neuromorphic engineering, instrumentation, machine learning), applications (healthcare, environment, quality control, agriculture, military, security), as well as product design and manufacturing.  We also invite participation from multiple stakeholders, including government organizations, academic institutions, industry and non-profit organizations.

Attending the workshop. If you are interested in attending the workshop, please submit an application online. We are accepting applications until September 6, 2022 August 15, 2022 . There are limited seats available (~50), so we will select participants to ensure broad participation from multiple disciplines and stakeholders. Notifications of acceptance to attend the workshop will be announced on September 9, 2022.