Making perfume is an art, and you can’t objectively break art down into its individual components... right? In the case of perfume, it appears that perhaps you can. Dr. Alirío Rodrigues, a chemical engineer at Portugal’s University of Porto, has devised a system called Perfumery Radar (PR). It is able to analyze the odor of perfumes, and map out what scents are present, and in what proportions.

Usually, the different component scents that make up perfumes are detected by human perfume experts, who use words like “floral” and “woody” to describe them. The ability to detect smells varies from person to person, however, as does their perception of those smells – one person might associate the smell of the sea with vacations, for instance, while another might associate it with almost drowning.

There’s also the whole philosophical question to be asked, that applies to any sensual perception: how do I know that what you describe using a given word (i.e: woody) is the same as what I think of when I hear that word? With a reported 50 to 100 fragrant ingredients going into a typical perfume, the margin for individual interpretation could be pretty big.

In the PR system, gas chromatography devices analyze the vapors from perfumes. Based on the vapor’s molecular structure, its smell is then broken down into eight commonly-referenced families, namely citrus, fruity, floral, green, herbaceous, musk, oriental and woody... although there are many other families that this early version of the system does not yet recognize. The results are plotted out on a radar graph, indicating the relative strength of each of the families.

When 14 popular women's fragrances were tested on the system, the results were similar to those arrived at by human perfume experts.

A University of Porto paper on the technology stated, “PR introduces some scientific basis, reducing the arbitrariness of perfume classification to the empirical classification of pure odorants.” Rodrigues hopes that the system could be used to speed up and economize the commercial development of perfumes in the future.

The research was recently published in the journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research.