A team led by a UH professor has developed a chemical sensor that has the capacity to detect many kinds of chemicals, including explosives, drugs and food toxins.
For now, the sensors are only in the laboratory phase, but Rigoberto Advincula is trying to put the sensors into portable devices in order for users to obtain information faster and more reliable.
“What I want to do is to bring the capability and reliability of the lab to a handheld sensor,” Advincula said. “That means the information is there, powerful, reliable and they can make a decision right away.”
The sensor works through a system of molecular imprinting, where the shape of the molecule is replicated into a film, using a lock-and-key mechanism similar to enzymes.
The key breakthrough in the team’s work is a combination of electro-deposition on a gold surface and novel molecules developed in his lab.
Because the chemical of interest can be imprinted into the film, the made-on-demand sensors can detect explosive materials, like TNT, which could be useful in airport screening.
It can be used to detect food toxins and infestation coming from salmonella. It can also be used to detect drug toxins.
Advincula has been in contact with different companies to build a portable instrument, and has a provisional patent filed at UH.
“I don’t have a particular customer right now, but I’m trying to find a company that can manufacture this device,” he said.
Ph.D. graduate students Roderick Pernites and Ramakrishna Ponnapati helped Advincula with his project. They have dedicated more than two years of their time researching in the laboratory.
“I learned a lot,” Pernites said.“But aside from learning, I got to meet different people outside the lab from different companies.”
Ponnapati, who graduated and is now doing more research at the University, said that working on this project has been good because of the research that it offers.
“The beauty of this project is not just that you take one molecule and detect that particular molecule, it’s that you apply this principle to various different molecules,” he said.
Mark Smith, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, supports the innovative work that is taking place at UH.
“Projects like this make the college and the University stronger and enable us to attract more students,” he said.
Advincula’s work was recently published in three of the most prestigious scientific journals.
Advincula was inducted into the fellows program of the prestigious American Chemical Society in 2010.