Wasabi makes for one hot fire alarm

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10/11/2011

Recently, there’s been announcement after announcement about who has won a Nobel Prize. But each year those awards are being given out, a science humor magazine called the Annals of Improbable Research runs its own “Ig Nobel” prize contest for scientific achievements that “first make people laugh, then make them think.” And this year, a wasabi fire alarm earned the top spot among 10 honorees.

It made me laugh and think, so I thought I’d share the news with you. And Popular Mechanics was so intrigued by the Ig Nobel-winning wasabi fire alarm, it wrote about it. Here’s more from the magazine’s Oct. 5 article:
 

As anyone who’s ever put too much of the pungent green paste on a sushi roll knows, wasabi is hard to ignore. A taste of the stinging stuff sets off alarm bells on your tongue. And a Japanese team has now taken advantage of that fact for their real but really crazy-sounding invention: the wasabi fire alarm.
The research team was trying to come up with a solution to the fact that most people who are killed in building fires are asleep or elderly—either way, they don’t hear the alarm. But it’s hard to ignore the eye-watering burn of wasabi, so the researchers tried to use that to their advantage. First, they isolated the compound in wasabi responsible for the characteristic stinging sensation, allyl isothiocyanate. This chemical isn’t an odor, it’s a "somatosensation." The nervous system perceives it as a painful, stinging feeling. "In contrast to olfactory processing, somatosensory processing persists during sleep," team member Makoto Imai tells PM. "That’s why subjects can wake up after inhalation of air-diluted wasabi." Their invention is now registered under a patent called "Odor Generation Alarm and Method for Informing Unusual Situation."
For their tests, Imai and colleagues filled canisters of the compound, waited until their test subjects were deeply asleep, and then filled the room with wasabi gas. Of the 14 test subjects—including four who were deaf—13 woke within 2 minutes. (It turned out that the fourteenth person had a blocked nose). The team actually tested about 100 odors, including rotten eggs. Wasabi stood alone as the premier waker-upper.
Last week, their innovation earned them an Ig Nobel prize, an award handed out by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research, which every year spoofs the Nobel Prizes awarded a week later. "At first, we wondered what happened," Imai says of the odd honor. "But then, we were very delighted with this prize."
Seems, Inc., a Tokyo-based company, used the team’s research to develop the alarm, which has been available since April 2009 for about $600. The company is working to create a less expensive model.