Bob Michaels

January 4, 2011

2 Min Read
New Sensing Technology Could Lead to Breathalyzer Breakthrough

A sensor technology based on micron-size polymer particles coated with metal oxide nanoparticles can detect biomarkers in a person's breath in real time.

Researchers at Purdue University (West Lafayette, IN) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST; Gaithersburg, MD) have developed a technology that could eventually be used to detect biomarkers in a person's respiration in real time. Detecting biomarkers offers insights into a patient's health, indicating the possible presence of cancer or other diseases.

The technology consists of sensors that are made from micron-size polymer particles coated with metal oxide nanoparticles. A droplet of this material is deposited on microhotplates--devices on electronic chips measuring approximately 100 µm square and containing electrodes shaped like meshing fingers. As the electrodes heat up and the droplets dry, the polymer is burned off, leaving porous metal-oxide-film-based sensors. These sensors detect changes in electrical resistance or conductance as gases pass over them.

When gases are passed over the device and permeate the film, the film changes its electrical properties depending on the particular biomarkers present. The researchers used the technology to detect acetone, a biomarker for diabetes, in a gas mimicking a person's breath with a sensitivity in the parts per billion range.

Such breathalyzers are likely a decade or longer away from being realized, in part because precise standards have not yet been developed to manufacture devices based on the approach, remarks Carlos Martinez, an assistant professor of materials engineering at Purdue who is working with researchers at NIST. "However, the fact that we were able to do this in real time is a big step in the right direction."

For more information on this technology, see the Purdue Newsroom article "Purdue, NIST working on Breathalyzers for Medical Diagnostics."

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