Messages Sent Via Vodka Could Be The Solution To Talking Where Radio Won't Go

By Ben Wolford on December 18, 2013 9:31 PM EST

Dog Urinating
Scientists have taken another cue from nature with molecular communication. It's something dogs already do when they mark their territory.

Sometimes lines of radio communication don't work very well, like inside a tunnel or a nanocomputer, because they rely on the transmission of radio waves and the efficacy of antennae to pick up signals. But what if there were something more fluid than radio signals that could be broadcast to communicate important messages? That thing, according to scientists in the United Kingdom and Canada, is vodka — well, not necessarily vodka, but many types of molecules, including molecules of vodka.

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In establishing a proof of principle about molecular communication, the researchers used a spray bottle and a fan to waft alcohol over a receiver on the opposite end of a room. The receiver (like a Breathalyzer) determined whether there was alcohol content or not. Those two options represent a message in binary code. And voila: For the first time ever, someone used vodka to communicate clearly. They published their work in the journal PLOS ONE

But it doesn't have to be alcohol, say the scientists from the University of Warwick and York University. They say insects use pheromones to blast signals far and wide, and they say plants use it, too. Earlier this year, scientists discovered that human embryonic stem cells depend on molecular communication. It's a commonplace language in the animal mating scene and in territorial disputes. "You can also think of this as an analogue to animals leaving messages for each other by urinating on things," said Andrew Eckford in a video from York University.

"We believe we have sent the world's first text message to be transmitted entirely with molecular communication, controlling concentration levels of the alcohol molecules, to encode the alphabets with single spray representing bit 1 and no spray representing the bit 0," says York University doctoral candidate Nariman Farsad, who led the experiment, in a news release. The next step, they say, is to start a company trying to bring molecule-powered communication systems to market.

There are various potential industrial uses for such a thing. It wouldn't initially be for sending "text messages," as it were. The products would be more useful as alert networks. They cited the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the 15-ton ball of solidified grease that nearly blocked London sewers this summer. (You may remember it by its repulsive monicker, the "fatberg.") "This," researcher Weisi Guo assured us, "could prevent future disasters such as the bus-sized fatberg."

This kind of research has been going on elsewhere for years. For example, Georgia Tech has a laboratory devoted to molecular communication between nanomachines, trying to determine how much noise gets in the way of the signal. But in their studies, the molecular intermediary is bacteria, not vodka.

Above photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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