Smarter Smoke Alarm - Can Tell Real Danger from Nuisance Smoke

A physicist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory has developed a new smoke alarm technology that could help save lives. The device can differentiate between nuisance smoke, like that from a burnt piece of food, and actual danger in a room.

Bruce Warmack said his design is smarter, safer, and hopefully won't drive homeowners crazy by chirping at unnecessary times.

"The important thing is, if it is a nuisance, it knows that... then it knows to be quiet," he said.

The technology fits inside a small micro-controller, about the size of a pinky nail. That piece can analyze a room for normal levels, or detect different types of smoke.

According to The National Fire Protection Association, from 2005-2009 more than one-third of all home fire deaths resulted from fires in homes with no smoke alarms, while one-quarter resulted from fires in homes in which smoke alarms were present but did not operate.

"Sometimes people will place a smoke detector in a kitchen area where smoke comes up from the stove and it sets off every night at suppertime," said KFD Captain D.J. Corcoran "It becomes a nuisance. So what they'll do, is take that battery out, and that's that last thing we want them to do."

Warmack calls the technology "linear discrimination analysis," a mathematical technique that differentiates between different types of smoke. The alarm can tell if someone has burned food, or if the situation has escalated to smoldering fire or flames.

The device also includes a carbon monoxide detector, as well as a lower-frequency tone. He said the sound is easier for young children and elderly people to hear.

Warmack hopes companies will see the benefit of this technology and put it on the market.

"We want to make this knowledge public for the manufacturers to compete with one another and to present the public with the best technology that's out there," he said.

Until that point, he simply hopes the devices fully serves its purpose: to save lives.

"I'd love to have a hand in saving a few lives, and this has a really good potential of doing that." January 2012