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There’s suspense in the air – detected with IONICON PTR-TOFMS

Scientists analysed the air in cinemas and discovered that every movie leaves a characteristic pattern of VOCs

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany investigated how the composition of the air changed when an audience watched movies from different genres such as comedies like “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “Buddy”, or fantasy movies like “The Hobbit” and the science-fiction thriller “The Hunger Games”. The scientists determined how the audience reacted to individual movies on a scene-by-scene basis. Using their analyses incl. PTR-TOFMS data, they were also able to reconstruct which scenes were playing at the time.


Thomas Klüpfel installs a tube into the ventilation system of a cinema for PTR-TOFMS monitoring.

“The chemical signature of ‘The Hunger Games’ was very clear; even when we repeated the measurements with different audiences,” -  Jonathan Williams, group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry

Funny sequences consistently resulted in different molecular traces in the air than moments of excitement or suspense. “We can clearly differentiate the mass spectra,” says Williams who used an IONICON PTR-TOFMS for the measurements. They inserted the PTR-MS inlet line into the ventilation system of the cinema to monitor more than a hundred other chemical components exhaled by the audience in the movie theater’s exhaust air.

Measuring the exhaled air of large groups of humans or “crowd breath” provides an alternative to studies of individuals, which are laborious and increasingly subject to ethical hurdles.

There could also be practical applications for studies of air exhaled by large groups of people. The advertising industry could, for example, quickly and objectively measure how large groups of people react to emotional stimuli without having to conduct lengthy surveys.

Read the full story at MPI.

Measurements of isoprene taken during four separate screenings of “Hunger Games 2”

Original Publication: Williams, J., Stönner, C., Wicker, J., Krauter, N., Derstroff, B., Bourtsoukidis, E., Klüpfel, T. & Kramer, S. (2016). Cinema audiences reproducibly vary the chemical composition of air during films, by broadcasting scene specific emissions on breath. Scientific reports6.