Developed by a team led by Michael Strano, the sensor uses carbon nanotubes that are coated with protein fragments found in bee venom. According to Strano, it is the first time that those proteins react when exposed to nitro-aromatic compound explosives. The new material is also said to make the readability of the sensors easier.
Currently used spectrometers that are used to screen for explosives, rely on sensors that react to explosives with a changing intensity of light feedback, which could be difficult to read in an ambient light environment. The new sensors change the fluorescent light’s wavelength when an explosive is detected. The researchers stated that the signal can be read with the naked eye using a microscope.
Strano said that the new sensor does not only detect the functional explosive itself, but also breakdown products. “Compounds such as TNT decompose in the environment, creating other molecule types, and those derivatives could also be identified with this type of sensor,” Strano noted. “Because molecules in the environment are constantly changing into other chemicals, we need sensor platforms that can detect the entire network and classes of chemicals, instead of just one type.”
The researcher has filed a patent to protect his invention, but there is no opportunity to commercially use it in the foreseeable time: For the sensor to become practical for widespread use, it would have to be coupled with a commercially available concentrator that would bring any molecules floating in the air in contact with the carbon nanotubes. “It doesn’t mean that we are ready to put these onto a subway and detect explosives immediately. But it does mean that now the sensor itself is no longer the bottleneck,” Strano said. “If there’s one molecule in a sample, and if you can get it to the sensor, you can now detect and quantify it.”