GE researchers look to put COVID-19-detecting sensors in phones

Researchers at General Electric are set to begin research into how they can turn commonly-used surfaces into COVID-19-detecting devices, the company announced this week.

The GE Research team has received a 24-month grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop miniature sensors that can be embedded into mobile devices in order to detect COVID-19 particles on their surfaces.

“We all come into contact with different surfaces during any given day, from computer screens and conference tables to kiosks at the airport and, of course, credit card machines at stores while running errands,” Radislav Potyrailo, a principal scientist at GE Research and principal investigator on the NIH project, said in a statement.

“While everyone does a great job keeping these surfaces clean, we want to add an extra layer of safety by being able to detect the presence of the virus.”

Building on its past research and product development, the team will adapt electronic nano-sensors to detect COVID-19 particles. The team hopes these sensors can then be integrated into a range of surfaces, including phones, tablets, smartwatches, computer keyboards and more.

“We have developed tiny sensors, smaller than a fingertip, that have the same detection capabilities as the high-end analytical instruments the size of a microwave oven,” Potyrailo said.

“By delivering this exquisite detection capability of a conventional high-end analytical instrument in a such a small form factor, we can now consider sensing applications that you could envision being implemented as a sensor surface on a mobile phone or on a device even smaller than that.”


COVID-19 particles can live on surfaces for as long as a couple of hours to up to several days, depending on the type of surface.

The virus can survive on plastic and stainless steel objects for up to three days, but can only be detected on copper for up to four hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.

While it is possible to become infected with COVID-19 through contact with contaminated surfaces, it is not a common form of transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The primary and most important mode of transmission for COVID-19 is through close contact from person to person,” the CDC said in a statement updating its COVID-19 transmission webpage.


Early detection is a critical step in stopping the spread of COVID-19. As such, many organizations have taken steps to develop methods to spot the virus as soon as possible.

However, much of this research has focused on detecting early biomarkers of the disease through the use of wearables.

Fitbit has been a leader in this regard, conducting research showing its smartwatches can detect COVID-19 even before symptoms emerge. The company also leveraged the data collected on its devices to predict the likelihood of hospitalization.

Most recently, Fitbit and Stanford University launched a study to detect and track COVID-19 among college athletes across all Pac-12 universities.

Apple Watches and Oura Rings have also been used to target early warning signs of possible infection, such as heart rate variability and fever.

In other GE news, the company recently unveiled the Vscan Air, a wireless take on the handheld ultrasound technology it first debuted more than a decade ago. Cleared by the FDA back in November, the battery-powered device is intended for use by healthcare professionals conducting diagnostic ultrasound imaging and fluid flow analysis.

It connects to a companion app downloaded to a user’s personal Android or iOS device.


“One of the first lines of defense against any virus is avoiding exposure, which is easier said than done when you can’t see it,” Potyrailo said. “Through our project with the NIH, we are developing a sensor small enough to embed in a mobile device that could detect the presence of the COVID-19 virus.”

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