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Sensing the Invisible

NSF Award:

Nebraska 2010-15 RII Project: Nanohybrid Materials & Algal Biology  (University of Nebraska)

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Nanohybrid functional materials combine molecular elements such as DNA with 3-D nanostructure scaffolds, offering novel approaches to health diagnostics, environmental monitoring and domestic security. Their challenge: They are invisible to the naked eye and difficult to detect with conventional sensors.

However, through a collaborative effort led by the University of Nebraska, a research team has developed a technique that measures how polarized light refracts off of this new class of materials and compares it to how they respond in the presence of target chemicals.

This sensing method could significantly assist cancer, virus and drug detection because it identifies a range of substances with both precision and sensitivity at much smaller concentrations than are currently possible.

In this new sensing device, a flat surface is coated in nanostructures that sit on the surface, much like rows of corn in a field. When polarized light is directed at the surface, the nanostructures simultaneously respond to electromagnetic waves by polarization charges, which dance together in step in a way that is detectable and measurable. The nanomaterials are modified with molecules that attract and respond to the presence of target chemicals. When polarized light is directed at the sample, it splits off of the nanostructures in specific ways that change in the presence of the target substances.

Because the 3-D nanostructures are very porous, more target molecules can accumulate. The additional molecules strengthen the signal from the polarized light, allowing for detection at much smaller concentrations.

Images (1 of )

  • a 3-d nanostructure responds to pulses of polarized light
  • a schematic shows how molecules modify a 3-d nanostructure
This highly ordered, 3-D nanostructure responds to light pulses.
Mathias Schubert, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
The nanostructure can signal the presence of a target chemical.
Mathias Schubert, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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