The Nanocantilever Toxin Alert

Research teams at Clemson, UCLA and the University of Southampton in the UK are pioneering novel nanoscale sensors for detecting environmental toxins and other harmful airborne chemical and biological agents.

At Clemson, researchers have developed nanoscale cantilevers that potentially could be placed in a handheld device and used for real-time chemical alerts in detecting harmful gases on the battlefield, in healthcare and even at home. The nanoscale cantilevers look like tiny diving boards under an electron microscope.

Researchers have found that the cantilevers can vibrate much like a guitar string. By measuring the amplitude and frequency under different conditions, the scientists believe they can create reliable sensors to detect toxins.

The nano-scale cantilever.
(Photo: Clemson)

These electromechanical sensors have been shown to measure changes in humidity and temperature. Researchers think the cantilevers can be shrunk down to the nanoscale and placed in electronic devices as a single tiny chip.

At UCLA researchers have been working on a nanoscale sensor for more than five years. It is a single molecule less than 20 nanometers long that can be used in early detection of genetic diseases.

What’s unique about it is that it’s activated by a single molecule. Researchers say that when a target molecule binds to the probe in the sensor, the probe molecule changes shape and, in its new conformation, pulls on the sensor.

Researchers say the single-molecule sensor could eventually become a component in a lab-on-a-chip technology for doing chemical analysis. The motion of the sensor is detected by an optical technique called “evanescent wave scattering,” which analyzes light that leaks out behind a reflecting mirror. This evanescent wave can be used to sense precisely the position of an object “beyond” the mirror.

And finally, scientists at the campus of the University of Southampton, which pioneered optical networking technologies, are doing some cutting-edge work at its school of electronics and computer science. There researchers are developing a low-power sensor in silicon that has potential for use in biosensing and environmental-monitoring applications.

What’s unique about the team’s approach is that they’re cointegrating single-electron transistors and nano-electro-mechanical systems on a common silicon technology platform.

The team is developing the single-electron transistor with a unique suspended silicon nanobridge, which will work as an extremely sensitive detector for biological and chemical molecules. And this is said to be the first time that anyone has combined these two nanotechnologies to develop a smart sensor.

Looks like the future home, business and public meeting places will one day be adorned with sensors. Let’s hope companies manufacturing appliances for the home and business are keeping abreast of these intelligent sensors and how they can save time, money and lives. –Lee Bruno

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