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Friday, Oct. 28, 2011
Team behind wasabi smoke detector reveals their long road to triumph
By JUN HONGO
Genius, as Thomas Edison put it, may be 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, but inventing the groundbreaking wasabi-scented smoke detector also involved respiration, and literally a lot of lost sleep, the winners of this year's Ig Nobel Prize in chemistry revealed Wednesday in Tokyo.
"We've always wanted to contribute to the well-being of human lives through our research," Hideki Tanemura, one of the directors of Tokyo-based Seems Inc., said during a news conference at the Japan National Press Center.
Tanemura, along with six other researchers, including Shiga University professor Makoto Imai, received the 21st annual Ig Nobel Prize for chemistry last month for his studies related to the invention of smoke detectors that emit a strong wasabi scent instead of an ear-piercing screech.
The unique research won Tanemura's team the prestigious award, which "honors achievements that first make people laugh and then make them think," according to the organizer.
Experiments for the invention began in 2000, with the help of employees of Biwako Hospital in Shiga Prefecture and people with hearing disabilities. A total of 31 people were asked to fall asleep just to have the pungent smell of wasabi wake them up.
Nailing down the ideal density of the wasabi odor turned out to be the key element, but before it even got to that stage the researchers had to work through a lot of substances before settling on the strong smell of the Japanese horseradish.
"We tried everything in the beginning, from the smell of fresh baked bread, coffee, miso soup and peppermint. But no one woke up with those," Tanemura said.
Many experts warned it is impossible to wake someone up with ordinary scents, because a sleeping person's sense of smell is also in rest mode.
"Some just said they dreamed of playing in a field of flowers" after a pleasant fragrance was tested on them, Tanemura recalled.
But the team came out smelling like a rose after learning the power of wasabi.
"There is a chemical substance in wasabi that is extremely stimulating, yet has no negative effect on the human body," Tanemura said. "Even if it malfunctions, our detector is completely safe."
Seems Inc. executive Chigusa Shimokawa said a survey found that more than 40 percent of people with hearing disabilities are concerned about a fire breaking out while they're asleep. As many as 700 million people across the world could benefit from the wasabi smoke detector, the firm said, adding that overseas hotels have already contacted the company about getting some for their rooms.