Sensor measures fat burning in real time

Zurich researchers have developed a sensor that, by means of a breathalyser, measures when the body starts burning fat. The goal is to integrate the sensor into a conveniently sized device to help people when training or dieting.

Image Credit: ETH Zürich / Simon Zogg

During endurance training, the body burns not only carbohydrates such as sugar, but also fat. But people begin burning fat after different lengths of time.

Researchers at the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich and University Hospital Zurich have now developed a sensor that measures in real-time when the body begins burning fat. By blowing into a device similar to an alcohol breathalyser, the sensor measures the concentration of the fat-burning molecule acetone.

“When burning fat, the body produces by-products that find their way into the blood,” Andreas Güntner, a postdoc at ETH Zurich, said in a statement. In the pulmonary alveoli, these molecules, including acetone, enter the air exhaled by the person. The new sensor can detect a single acetone molecule in a hundred million other molecules, making it far more sensitive than previous sensors. 

The researchers have already successfully tested their sensor in volunteers. Control measurements revealed that the new measurement method correlated well with the results of blood analysis, one of today’s standard methods for monitoring lipolysis. 

The sensor is currently the size of a 1-cent euro coin, but the researchers are working to make it even smaller so it can be offered in a manageably sized device.

“This would allow athletes and people who want to lose weight to check for themselves when their bodies begin to burn fat so that they can optimise their training regimen,” said Güntner.

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