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Novel Sensor Detects Toxic Chemicals in Water

Revolutionary Gold-Based Sensor Tackles 'Forever Chemical' Pollution

by Oluwatosin Alabi

In a groundbreaking development, researchers have created a gold-based sensor capable of detecting toxic ‘forever chemicals’ in water. These chemicals, known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), are non-degradable, widely used in various industries, and notorious for accumulating in the environment, raising significant concerns about water pollution.

The current methods for measuring PFAS in water are complex, time-consuming, and costly, making it challenging to conduct on-site measurements at ultra-trace concentrations. This limitation has been a significant hurdle in effectively managing and containing PFAS contamination, particularly in industrial and drinking water sources.

Published in the journal Analytical Chemistry, the research introduces a prototype model capable of detecting perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a specific type of ‘forever chemical.’ The innovative approach involves luminescent metal complexes attached to a sensor surface. When the sensor, a small gold chip grafted with iridium metal complexes, is exposed to contaminated water, it detects PFOA through changes in the luminescence signal emitted by the metals. The process is initiated by exciting the iridium with UV light, which then emits red light. The presence of the ‘forever chemical’ alters the luminescence lifetime of the metal, signaling its concentration in the water.

Zoe Pikramenou, a professor at the University of Birmingham and co-leader of the sensor’s development, explained that the current version of the sensor can detect 220 micrograms of PFAS per liter of water, a level suitable for industrial wastewater. However, to be effective for drinking water, the sensor needs to be more sensitive, capable of detecting PFAS at nanogram levels.

The researchers, including co-author Dan Hodoroaba from Germany’s Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing, aim to refine the sensor to enhance its sensitivity and portability. This advancement will enable its use on-site for spill responses and for monitoring drinking water.

PFAS are commonly used for their advantageous properties, such as stain-proofing fabrics, in industrial settings. However, their improper disposal poses a significant threat to aquatic life, human health, and the environment at large. Pikramenou emphasizes the prototype’s role in detecting and managing this pollution, thereby protecting natural ecosystems and potentially safeguarding drinking water.

This innovative sensor represents a significant step forward in addressing the global challenge of PFAS contamination. By providing a more efficient, accurate, and accessible means of detecting these chemicals, the gold-based sensor offers hope for better environmental management and public health protection. As the researchers work towards making the sensor more sensitive and portable, its potential applications in industrial and residential settings could be a game-changer in the ongoing battle against ‘forever chemical’ pollution.

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