Perena Gouma, a professor at SUNY Stony Brook, uses electrospinning to synthesize ceramic nanowires that can detect disease markers like ammonia and acetone. Credit: Science Nation; NSF.
Chances are that you know a Type 1 diabetic who endures several finger pricks every day to monitor blood sugar levels. Maybe you know someone with asthma, or perhaps you know or heard of a healthy-seeming person who got the dreaded cancer diagnosis before showing any apparent symptoms. Don’t we all suffer some anxiety when the doctor asks “to run a few tests,” knowing that needles and possibly other unpleasant invasions are inevitable? And don’t we tend to release a big-breath sigh on such occasions?
If Professor Perena Gouma is nearby, she might ask you to do it again-but this time into her Single Breath Disease Diagnostics Breathalyzer. The instrument, which her team has been developing with NSF funding at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, analyzes the volatile organic compounds that we exhale with every breath and tests for certain markers that may indicate disease. For example, ammonia is a marker for possible kidney disorders, acetone is associated with diabetes and hospitals use nitric oxide detectors to monitor pulmonary disorders. (Undoubtedly, CTT readers have only academic knowledge of alcohol-detecting breathalyzers.)
The functionality of Gouma’s device is a sensor chip that is coated with spaghetti-like nanowires. The nanowires, with their enormous surface area, are able to detect very small amounts of marker molecules. In a NSF story and video about her work, Gouma says, “These nanowires enable the sensor to detect just a few molecules of the disease marker gas in a ‘sea’ of billions of molecules of other compounds that the breath consists of.”
Gouma is studying oxides in the ReO3 family, such as α-MoO3 and ε-WO3. The nanowires are synthesized by electrospinning, a process in which a liquid is squirted into an electric field, crystallized as it passes through and collected on an aluminum plate. (See the video at about the 1:32 minute mark to see the process.)
In an article to be published in The Bulletin this September, Gouma explains how gas sensing properties of ReO3 compounds arise from their perovskite crystal chemistry, nanocrystalline structure and their metastable phases.
Currently, the device is shoebox-size, but it is still in the prototyping phase, and units for detecting acetone (diabetes) and ammonia (dialysis monitoring) are being evaluated clinically. Gouma’s ambition is for these devices to be available for home use at a price point under $20. In the story she says, “People can get something over the counter, and it’s going to be a ‘first response’ or ‘first detection’ type of device. This is really a nanomedicine application that is affordable because it is based on inexpensive ceramic materials that can be mass produced at low cost.”
Echoing the exhortation of the Max Planck Society’s Peter Gruss to invest in basic science to spur innovation, Janice Hicks, a program director at NSF, says in the NSF story, “This concept could not have been realized without a fundamental understanding of the material used to create the miniaturized gas detectors. The research transcends traditional scientific and engineering disciplines, and may lead to new applications or diagnostics.”
“There will be so many other applications we haven’t envisioned. It’s very exciting; it’s a whole new world,” she says. Gouma expects that electrospun ceramic nanofibers also can be used to detect small things that are bigger than molecules, such as infectious viruses, Salmonella, E. coli and anthrax.
Her technology was among the first awardees of the NSF’s new Innovation Corps initiative, which is designed to help university researchers learn the skills they need to cross the “valley of death” and transition their concepts into marketable innovations. For this project, she is using electrospun nanofibers deposited on photocatalytic grids to clean water polluted by petroleum hydrocarbons.
For more information on electrospinning and electrospun nanowires, see