Engineers at the University of Oxford have developed a smart sensor technology that can be used to detect different types of substances and prevent crime.
The technology that has been developed by the engineer’s senses and responds to light and chemicals, using material compounds known as Metal Organic Frameworks (MOFs), that change colour depending on the substance detected.
The research and technology at Oxford could be used to develop low-cost MOFs, which could be used in a variety of innovative applications, including protecting society from crime and terrorism, biosensors for safeguarding against chemical poisoning and food contamination and hand-held medical devices for non-invasive diagnosis and therapy.
Oxford University engineers’ technology development could be useful for detecting crime because MOFs are known for being highly tuneable, are described as ‘solid molecular sponges’, as they have the ability to soak up and respond to a number of solvents and gases.
Potential applications include wearable personal protection devices, anti-counterfeiting technologies, and reusable optics-based luminescent sensors for protection against harmful environments, such as nitro explosives and toxic gases.
MOFs are created from highly porous frameworks where metal atoms are bridged by organic linker molecules. By engineering the physical and chemical properties of these frameworks, scientists can control the precise functionality of the material.
Professor Jin-Chong Tan, who leads 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 researchers plan to explore healthcare applications for the material, including the deployment of photochemical sensors inside diagnostic hand-held breathalysers for conditions such as diabetes.
Recently, this research has led to the award of the European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grant of €2.4m, which will support Prof Tan’s team in developing smart photonic sensors with MOF-based materials technology.
Doctoral student and the study’s co-author Abhijeet Chaudhari has discovered an unconventional synthetic strategy for fabricating porous 2D nanosheets ((OX-1) of a 3D MOF material), which could revolutionise the field of photonic sensors.
Tan said: “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.”
The Oxford team, in collaboration with Samsung Electronics, filed a patent in July 2017 to translate this technology into societal impact. The study was published in the scientific journal Advanced Materials.