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A ‘sixth sense’: Researchers patent device that can increase affordability, portability of chem-bio sensing

A new patent by a University of Missouri College of Engineering researcher is poised to make chemical and biological agent sensing much cheaper and more portable.

Mark Prelas, a professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, recently filed a patent for a new deep-level transient spectrometer (DLTS) design. This patent pairs with previous patents Prelas and his team have filed on the quantum fingerprint, which is the sensor that detects chemical and biological agents on a broad scale. The spectrometer is the device that reads the sensor.

“The way the chem-bio detector works is it uses semiconductor material, and when a molecule adheres or absorbs to the surface, it creates defects on the surface and leaves ‘fingerprints,’” Prelas explained. “So in order to be able to read those fingerprints, we need to look at subtle changes in the surface energy levels.”

This can be tricky. Typically, DLTS devices weigh more than 50 pounds and can cost up to $100,000. And previous chem-bio detection devices aren’t as highly sensitive or interact with only one agent. Prelas and three of his doctoral students developed a software-based device that’s roughly the size of a calculator and costs approximately $800 to produce.

Additionally, Prelas’ DLTS device was tested on a myriad of molecules and was able to identify a broad array of molecules despite relatively subtle changes.

“We tested this device from very basic simple molecules with similar molecular structures … and each one showed a unique energy spectra,” Prelas said. “Then we went to more complicated molecules … and we could identify those too. So we thought, what the heck, let’s try bacteria and viruses. So we tried E. coli and were able to identify that. Then we tried, essentially, a vaccine for smallpox and saw that [worked] too.”

Making these devices cheaper and more portable has a wide array of potential applications. Once a large database is built, these devices can detect the presence of potential marker molecules for certain diseases. In terms of security, they can detect the presence of biological or chemical agents. It can potentially make disease detection more affordable for impoverished nations.

“Anything that has a molecular structure that’s absorbed to the surface of the semiconductor, we can identify,” Prelas said.