A research team at Taiwan's top university has rolled out a tiny low-budget device that can sense earthquakes within 30 seconds, enough time to issue crucial disaster warnings, the lead inventor said Monday.

The metal tool the size of a tape deck can detect an oncoming quake's speed and acceleration in time to estimate its eventual magnitude and warn trains to slow down or natural gas companies to shut off supplies, said Wu Yih-min, a researcher at the National Taiwan University Department of Geosciences.

The tool is more precise than similar technology used overseas, and could cost as little as T$10,000 ($302) once it reaches the market, said Wu, whose skeleton research team invented the tool after about five years of study.

We can tell within 30 seconds whether it's going to be a big or small quake, Wu told reporters. We can sense the scale and how much damage it's likely to cause.

The tool, which should be fastened to a place unlikely to be shaken by forces other than earthquakes, uses a chip that costs just a few U.S. dollars, Wu said.

Schools, railway systems and nuclear power plants would benefit from the technology, said Kuo Kai-wen, seismological center director with Taiwan's Central Weather Bureau, which helped the university test its device

But before it can be used, researchers must figure out how to link it to computerized alert systems, Kuo said.

The university has not yet applied for a patent, Wu said.

Taiwan is prone to earthquakes, logging 20 minor ones in the past 2- weeks.

In May 2008, a 7.9 magnitude quake hit Sichuan province of southwest China, killing about 70,000 people and leaving more than 10 million homeless.

(Reporting by Ralph Jennings; Editing by Jerry Norton)