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NIST Researchers Develop a Breakthrough COVID-19 Detection Technology

“Only connect” is the most famous line in the British novelist E. M. Forster’s writings.

Forster was urging the readers of his book Howard’s End to make personal progress by linking their rational side to their emotional side, but “only connect” has taken on a broader meaning in today’s intellectual climate.  Forster’s advice has come to signify applying insights from one field to address problems in different and ostensibly unrelated fields.

A compelling example of this associative process was detailed in a presentation by Dr. Jun Ye of NIST’s Physical Measurement Laboratory’s Quantum Physics Division and JILA, formerly known as the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics ( on August 31, 2023, for the recently inaugurated Lunch and Learn series sponsored by the Department of Commerce’s Office of Learning & Development (OL&D).

The cross-bureau session began with a description by NIST Chief Learning Officer Christopher Currens of the breadth of NIST’s mission and the range of technologies NIST advances to fulfill that mission.

Mr. Currens described Dr. Ye, who won the 2022 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, as “one of the most cited researchers in experimental physics in the world today.”

Dr. Ye’s address, “From Atomic Clock to Breath Analyzer – Extreme Sensing at the Quantum Limit,” revealed how his research of more than 20 years on the atomic clock contributed to the development of a breathalyzer that can detect the SARS-CoV-2 infection that causes COVID-19.

The atomic clock’s processes were summarized, and NIST’s decades-long pursuit of a stable laser to measure the oscillation of electrons around an atom’s nucleus was illustrated.  Dr. Ye described how the optical frequency comb developed by NIST measures the frequency of light waves.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, colleagues from the National Academy of Sciences and federal funding agencies approached Dr. Ye. They asked if NIST’s research into frequency combs could be used to detect the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 infection in human breath.

Breath molecules contain a great array of health information. Dr. Ye and his team harnessed machine learning’s vast analytical capabilities to identify trace elements associated with different medical conditions. They devised a test using 180 students from the University of Colorado Boulder, half of whom were COVID-19 positive and half of whom were COVID-19 negative. The research culminated in finding a remarkably accurate discrimination tool for the presence of COVID-19.  

The technology Dr. Ye and his team developed offers a low-cost, real-time analysis of breath that enables early diagnosis. The technology has additional potential applications in detecting chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), liver disease, and other maladies.

Dr. Ye praised the contributions of his collaborators: Qizhong Liang, Jutta Toscano, Ya-Chu Chan, Andrew Scheck, David Nesbitt, and colleagues at JILA and the University of Colorado Boulder.

The breathalyzer developed by Dr. Ye and his colleagues is a real-world illustration of scientific intuition that can expand the frontiers of scientific knowledge by sensing connections between disparate fields of study and using that intuition to work toward solutions of vast importance to ordinary people.

This case is also an example of the technology transfer process that is such a vital part of NIST’s mission.  Dr. Ye and his colleagues applied for and received a patent for the breathalyzer technology they developed. Businesses have expressed interest in licensing this technology. The commercialization of this technology will contribute to our country's economy and promises significant health benefits for society.

If you are interested in learning more about this technology, send an e-mail message to TPO [at] NIST.GOV.


Released October 2, 2023