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Researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory claim to have devised the most sensitive listening device ever. Designed to enable robot explorers to listen out for life on other planets, the tiny microphone could theoretically detect the sound of a single cell growing.
The device, currently known as a "nanomicrophone" [Although that does seem a bit excessive to us - Ed.] does not depend on a membrane to detect vibrations, rather it based on stereocilla, the tiny hairs that line the inner ear and transmit sound to the brain.
The artificial cilla are made from carbon nanotubes, which bend in response to the slightest change in pressure.
Crowley and Tripp's latest system, which uses a proprietary composite acoustic transducer technology invented in their laboratory, is also good for seeing blockages within the heart arteries as well as cancer, and is now being developed as part of the company's new ultrasound system. "We are tuning into small but very important differences in audio character from cell to cell, exactly what is needed for the next lifesaving medical devices that use sound to succeed", explained Crowley.
Using the sensitive ears of a parasitic fly for inspiration, a group of researchers has created a new type of microphone that achieves better acoustical performance than what is currently available in hearing aids.
Indeed, the noise floor of the fly-inspired microphone is about 17 decibels lower than what can be achieved using a pair of low-noise hearing aid microphones to create a directional hearing aid. The new design could be used in applications ranging from hearing aids and cell phones to surveillance and acoustic noise control systems, Miles says, and "could easily be made as small as the fly's ear."
“What we’ve done is created these little tiny microphone diaphragms that are directional to sound, so if sound comes from certain directions they will respond, but if sound comes from other directions it won’t respond,” Miles said.
The diaphragm, the key part of the new microphone technology, is the tiny membrane found inside all microphones that responds to the small fluctuations in air pressure produced by sound waves. Miles’ diaphragms, however, are different than those used by traditional microphones because they are created using a special silicon microfabrication process.
“Some cell phones have multiple microphones, like the newest iPhone actually has three microphones, and it’s possible to utilize a directional microphone instead of having that array of microphones,” Miles said.
With the help of this microphone it is/should be possible to detect weak sound waves emitted by a single cell, without inducing big amount of mechanical stress into the cell. These sound waves might be a passive echo-like reaction to an external sound signal or even have their origin in the internal processes of a living cell.
The invention of a tiny microphone by Ron Miles, a professor in the mechanical engineering department, may be the key component to the next generation of hearing aids to help the hearing impaired.