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by Ruaraidh Gilmour
31 May 2023
Researchers developing new technology to detect chemical contamination instantly

The SIM-card size sensor could revolutionise how chemical contamination is detected in liquids | C: University of Edinburgh

Researchers developing new technology to detect chemical contamination instantly

Scottish researchers are developing a first-of-its-kind technology to monitor toxic chemicals used in bioengineering, that could transform routine health and safety testing across a range of industries.      

Experts from the University of Edinburgh’s School of Biological Sciences, with funding from the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC), have created a SIM card-sized technology that could be used in sectors such as food and drink manufacturing, water monitoring, pharmaceutical development, agriculture, and aquaculture to detect contamination in liquids.  

The new development would allow teams to test for foreign pollutants remotely while providing real-time 24/7 readings by using a natural microorganism that causes a reaction when certain chemicals are found.    

It is potentially a major step forward in testing for chemical contamination, as the current best practice involves manually taking a liquid sample and sending it away from laboratory testing. However, this is usually done infrequently, meaning problems can be caused by issues like excess oxygen, exposure to extreme conditions, or cross-contamination during production processes that can go undetected for some time.  

The team plans to launch the tool, called Nanosensr, under a new spin-out company next year.  

Recent data released by Scottish Water revealed that sewage overflowed directly into Scotland’s rivers and other water courses more than 14,000 times last year – the highest since records began. In this context, the new biosensor could be used to determine whether water is safe instantly.  

Dr James Flewellen, research associate and biosensor commercialisation team lead at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Many industries depend on routine health and safety and quality checks to ensure the products they are manufacturing are fit-for-purpose. However, the current process for detecting potential contaminants can be complex, expensive and slow. Instead of sending away samples for lab testing, we have developed a unique biosensor device that combines biology with electrical engineering to help detect potential issues with chemical contamination in liquids at point-of-use and in real-time.  

“The technology could be applied to a range of settings and sectors, from checking whether drinking water is safe to monitoring fermentation processes in the drinks industry. So far, we have proof that the bioengineering and biosensor concept works, and the next stage is to refine the equipment so that it is waterproof and can withstand a range of operating conditions, such as temperature variations.”  

Liz Fletcher, director of business engagement at IBioIC, added: “This project is a great example of how bioengineering can be applied to a range of real-life issues. Liquids and electrics don’t usually mix well, but in this case, they work together as sensors to provide an early indication of potential contamination issues, allowing companies to intervene or take preventative measures. It is great to be supporting early-stage research and new business ideas with exciting potential.”

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