New Chemical Sensor Could Prevent Crime and Terrorism

Engineers at the University of Oxford have made use of material compounds, called Metal Organic Frameworks (MOFs), for developing technology capable of sensing and then responding to chemicals and light. The material visibly changes color based on the substance detected.

Photo credit: University of Oxford

Photonic sensors are considered to be a rapidly expanding and a fast-emerging global market. Published in Advanced Materials, it is possible to use Oxford’s research for developing (MOFs) at low cost, enabling a wide range of groundbreaking applications. Possible opportunities for impact include; protecting society from terrorism and crime, biosensors for safeguarding against food contamination and chemical poisoning and hand-held medical devices ideal for non-invasive diagnosis and therapy. Prospective applications range from anti-counterfeiting technologies, to wearable personal protection devices and reusable optics-based luminescent sensors used for protection against harmful environments, such as toxic gases and nitro explosives.

MOFs are greatly tunable and have been described as ‘solid molecular sponges’, possessing the potential to soak up and then respond to a number of gasses and solvents. They are produced from greatly porous frameworks in which metal atoms are bridged by organic linker molecules. The chemical and physical properties of these frameworks can be engineered, permitting scientists to control the exact functionality of the material.

Professor Jin-Chong Tan, who heads the Multi-functional Materials & Composites (MMC) Lab in the Department of Engineering at Oxford University, said: “This new material has remarkable physical and chemical properties that will open the door to many unconventional applications. MOF materials are getting smarter, and with further research can be useful for engineering intelligent sensors and multi-functional devices.”

The team has taken active steps towards translating this technology into societal impact, and filing a patent in July 2017, in partnership with Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. Over the coming months, the researchers will be exploring healthcare applications for the material, such as deployment of photochemical sensors within diagnostic hand-held breathalyzers for conditions like diabetes.

Recently, this innovative research has further led to the award of the prestigious European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grant of €2.4 million. The funding will support the team headed by Professor Tan, whose work focuses on developing smart photonic sensors along with MOF-based materials technology.

Abhijeet Chaudhari, a doctoral student and the co-author of the study, discovered an unusual synthetic strategy for fabricating porous 2D nanosheets ((OX-1) of a 3-D MOF material), which could possibly revolutionize the field of photonic sensors.

Downsizing the typically three-dimensional (3D) framework architecture of MOFs to yield two-dimensional (2D) morphologies, akin to topical 2D nanomaterials like chalcogenides, graphene, and oxide nanosheets, is hard to accomplish. Yet, the development of new 2D MOF materials is important for engineering advanced applications, for example: photonic sensors and smart switches, thin-film electronics and sensing devices.

Professor Jin-Chong Tan

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