A New Type of Fire Alarm Goes Off Before There’s Even Smoke

A fire gas detector instead of a smoke detector.

Smoke detectors are a good and simple tool. Whether they’re Internet-connected or just the same device that’s been on your wall for years (with fresh batteries, naturally), they’re always ready to send out a piercing warning about fire, because where there’s smoke, there’s fire, right? But researchers in Germany want to take a step back. They’re developing a new detector that signals a fire before there would be enough smoke to set off a conventional detector.

The idea is to sound alarms sooner by creating a sensor that can detect minute amounts of both carbon monoxide, which fires emit almost immediately, and nitrogen dioxide, which comes shortly after. Spotted by Gizmodo, reseachers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Physical Measurement Technology IPM wanted to develop a tool that was cheaper and used less electricity than existing carbon monoxide detectors, and that also could specifically distinguish between different gasses.

“Ours responds only to carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide—it ignores other gases,” IPM researcher Carolin Pannek said in a statement. “The sensors are extremely sensitive, so they respond very early in the fire’s development.”

The device contains a plate treated with two special dyes that glow different colors depending on whether they are exposed to normal air versus carbon monoxide or nitrogen dioxide. When an optical sensor detects a change in the glow, it trips the alarm.

The researchers believe that when produced at scale, the fire alarms would cost the same amount to make as traditional smoke detectors. The gas sensors mostly use the same parts that are already in smoke detectors, and the researchers specifically designed the novel components (namely the plate with the special dyes) so it would be easy to mass-produce them.

Every second counts when reacting to a fire, but the gas detector will probably win even more fans if it can do a better job differentiating between a crisis and Sunday bacon.