Wasabi is a plant native to Japan, and in the same biological family as mustard, cabbage, and unsurprisingly, horseradish. In a culinary context, it’s most commonly known as the green, spicy stuff that comes with sushi, next to the ginger (although if you’re eating it in the United States, there’s a good chance you’re actually eating horseradish and mustard, dyed green). Wasabi is known for the distinctive, spicy flavor one experiences when eating it, and that experience, it turns out, is mostly detected by our noses. While the oils from wasabi will set off our taste buds, they’re easily washed away by any subsequent food (including sushi or rice). The aroma, on the other hand, sticks with the nasal receptors much longer, and is often more intense than the taste.
Which is why it makes for a good fire alarm.
The problem with fire alarms is that, usually, they involve a loud bell and occasionally, a flashing or strobe light. That’s great for most of us, but for the hearing impaired and for elderly whose hearing wasn’t what it once was, the bell doesn’t do much. A flashing light is helpful but only if you’re awake or otherwise able to notice it. The best alternative, right now, is likely an alarm which can vibrate your bed, but who knows how reliable those are. So a team of Japanese researchers turned to wasabi, rigging an alarm (as seen above) to spray the stuff in case of emergency.
The alarm sprays out allyl isothiocyanate, the oil responsible for the pungent smell of wasabi, horseradish, mustard, and the like, according to CNET. When the alarm detects smoke, it creates a mist-like spray from the oil, with the hopes of tingling the noses of those nearby, alerting them to danger. The device works, too; during one experiment, the alarm worked for thirteen of the fourteen subjects (including the four deaf people in the group) within two to three minutes. (The exception had a stuffy nose, according to Reuters.) The now-patented product hasn’t hit the mass consumer market yet, and the current version costs over $500.
It has, however, received praise. In 2011, it was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize — given to “achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think” — in Chemistry. And perhaps someday soon, it will save lives, as well.
From the Archives: Knuckle Head: Another Ig Nobel winner.
Related: A book on the Ig Nobel Prizes, 4.4 stars on 7 reviews, and available for only a few bucks used.