A Nanoscopic Sensor With Untapped Possibilities

June 25, 2010
By Jordan Garegnani

By reinventing technology decades old, researchers have created a new sensor with the ability to perceive nanoscopic amounts of chemical or biological materials. It now awaits development and manufacturing for practical application.

In this month's SIGNAL Magazine, Rita Boland explains the method and impact of new sensor technology in the article "Technology Aims to Trace Sub-Microscopic Troubles."

Scientists Nickolay Lavrik and Panos Datskos at Oak Ridge National Laboratory employ microelectromechanical systems and nanoelectromechanical systems, which have been around a while, to create a generic sensor that can spot a specific substance.

In the sensor, a projected laser bounces off of the target substance and resonates back at a certain frequency based on the amount and composition of the substance, confirming or rejecting the presence of that material. Sensors are selective in their identification and cannot sense materials other than the one it is designed to pinpoint.

This new technology supercedes its predecessors' ability to detect small amounts of material; it can be accurate down to the nanoscopic level. And users don't need to be an engineer or a scientist to read the results. These features may not seem revolutionary, but the ability to find such small traces of materials can reduce the possibility of a false negative or be indicative of a greater concern-especially in airport and military security:

In terms of applications, the sensor could detect all sorts of materials including physical, biological and chemical substances by using different materials in the construction of the physical device. By changing the surface layer or coating in the sensor, it can be used for different purposes. Datskos says it could even sense acoustics and temperature.

Though security is the sensor's most obvious application, there are seemingly endless possibilities for this technology. However, right now it needs manufacturers to adopt and develop it for applications, so the sensor waits in a lab as potential. Lavrick and Datskos have developed the raw technology; now funding is necessary to continue pushing the science or to create a device with real-world application. What potential practical daily uses could this technology be used for? Are there any ethical considerations for this technology? How would this affect national and public security?

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