No Signal, No Problem: World’s First Text Message Sent Using Molecules

water.molecule, chemical, molecular communication“O Canada” – the first two words of the Canadian National anthem, is the first text message to be communicated via chemical signalling – a molecular communication system. 

The two word text was sent in a joint project between York University in Canada and Warwick University in the UK. The findings are published in the journal PNAS.

“O Canada” was first translated into binary signals and then “programmed” into evaporated alcohol molecules with the message then being translated several metres away. The decoding equipment used cost as little as $100.  Nariman Farsad, lead researcher at York University said:

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.”

The need to communicate over a distance has always been an integral part of being human. Throughout history, communication methods have ranged from semaphores (flag communication), fire beacons, smoke signals, and carrier birds. Modern society settled on electrical signals and electromagnetic waves.

communicating with flags

There are a number of environments where communication via radio waves is not possible – in these cases chemical or molecules communication could enable communication where it was not possible before, for example: 

  • tunnels
  • pipelines
  • underwater
  • within the body

Data has been successfully transmitted using  chemicals before, yet no one has ever transmitted continuous data or achieved a distance of over several meters – the researchers effectively went to the “next level” in molecular communication.

Molecular communication is a possible solution to the problem of communicating in “no signal” areas. Plant and animals communicate via chemicals, for example, insects use pheromones for long – range signalling, and bees use chemicals in pheromones to signal a threat to the hive. The communication evident in the plant and animal world however is essentially “signalling,” not “continuous data.”

Researchers believe that molecular communication provides the potential for a simple and cheap communication tool in non conventional environments, as the method is biocompatible and require very little energy to generate and propagate.

In future, electromagnetic waves will continue to transmit the bulk of our data, yet molecular communication could be used to enable communication in environments where it has not been possible before due to lack of radio waves, with the potential to prevent disasters from poor health in structures and processes such as the 2013 “fatberg” and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill –

Potential targeted applications include wireless monitoring of sewage works and oil rigs. This could prevent future disasters such as the bus-sized fatberg found blocking the London sewage networks in 2013, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.”

Further possibilities include communication in hostile environments and uses in nanotechnology – for example in medicine where recent advances mean it’s possible to embed sensors into the organs of the body or create miniature robots to carry out a specific task such as targeting drugs to cancer cells. Researchers add;

On these tiny scales and in special structural environments, there are constraints with electromagnetic signals such as the ratio of antenna size to the wavelength of the signal, which chemical communication does not have.”

The possibilities are endless, and not unlike the stuff of thrillers. Dr Weisi Guo of Warwick University, adds –

Imagine sending a detailed message using perfume it sounds like something from a spy thriller novel, but in reality it is an incredibly simple way to communicate.”


Tabletop Molecular Communication: Text Messages through Chemical Signals

Warwick Press Release:

8 incredible nano technologies –

Image credit: with thanks to RGB Free photographer rgbalpha