Design and Implementation of a Laser-Based Ammonia Breath Sensor for Medical Applications

  • Kyle Owen

Student thesis: Master's Thesis


Laser-based sensors can be used as non-invasive monitoring tools to measure parts per billion (ppb) levels of trace gases. Ammonia sensors are useful for applications in environmental pollutant monitoring, atmospheric and combustion kinetic studies, and medical diagnostics. This sensor was specifically designed to measure ammonia in exhaled breath to be used as a medical diagnostic and monitoring tool, however, it can also be extended for use in other applications. Although ammonia is a naturally occurring species in exhaled breath, abnormally elevated levels can be an indication of adverse medical conditions. Laser-based breath diagnostics have many benefits since they are cost effective, non-invasive, painless, real time monitors. They have the potential to improve the quality of medical care by replacing currently used blood tests and providing immediate feedback to physicians. This sensor utilizes a Quantum Cascade Laser and Wavelength Modulation Spectroscopy with second harmonic normalized by first harmonic detection in a 76 m multi-pass absorption cell to measure ppb levels of ammonia with improved sensitivity over previous sensors. Initial measurements to determine the ammonia absorption line parameters were performed using direct absorption spectroscopy. This is the first experimental study of the ammonia absorption line transitions near 1103.46 cm-1 with absorption spectroscopy. The linestrengths were measured with uncertainties less than 10%. The collisional broadening coefficients for each of the ammonia lines with nitrogen, oxygen, water vapor, and carbon dioxide were also measured, many of which had uncertainties less than 5%. The sensor was characterized to show a detectability limit of 10 ppb with an uncertainty of less than 5% at typical breath ammonia levels. Initial breath test results showed that some of the patients with chronic kidney disease had elevated ammonia levels while others had ammonia levels in the same range as expected for healthy patients. For all of the patients the breath ammonia level decreased during dialysis but the percent decrease varied considerably for each patient. The sensor has demonstrated improved sensitivity and has been applied to measure ppb levels of ammonia in exhaled breath. Further tests have been designed to improve the sensor and continue to investigate the medical applications.
Date of AwardJun 2012
Original languageEnglish (US)
Awarding Institution
  • Physical Sciences and Engineering
SupervisorAamir Farooq (Supervisor)


  • Laser
  • absorption
  • Spectroscopy
  • Ammonia
  • Breath
  • Sensor

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