Scientists develop a new sensor for detecting ‘forever chemicals’ in water

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In a new study, researchers at the University of Birmingham, in collaboration with Germany’s Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM), have introduced a novel method to detect ‘forever chemicals’ in water, utilizing the power of luminescence.

This innovative approach offers a beacon of hope in the ongoing battle against these persistent pollutants, which have become a growing concern due to their indestructible nature and accumulation in the environment.

‘Forever chemicals’, formally known as PFAS (Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), are a group of manufactured chemicals widely used across various industries, including food packaging, semiconductor production, and even in car tires.

Their durability, while beneficial for industrial purposes, poses a significant challenge for environmental sustainability, as they do not degrade, leading to toxic pollution, especially in water sources.

The traditional methods for detecting these contaminants are often cumbersome, expensive, and require specialized equipment, making it difficult to conduct rapid, on-site testing, particularly at the ultra-trace levels necessary for drinking water.

Addressing this critical gap, the team, led by Professor Stuart Harrad of Environmental Chemistry and Professor Zoe Pikramenou of Inorganic Chemistry and Photophysics, embarked on designing a sensor that simplifies the detection process.

The newly developed sensor operates on a luminescent mechanism, utilizing metal complexes attached to a gold chip. When exposed to ultraviolet light, these iridium metal complexes emit red light.

If the chip encounters water contaminated with PFAS, specifically perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), it undergoes a noticeable change in the luminescence signal. This change allows for the detection of the presence and concentration of these harmful chemicals.

So far, the prototype has achieved the capability to detect PFAS concentrations as low as 220 micrograms per liter of water, a sensitivity that suits the monitoring of industrial wastewater.

However, the team aims to enhance the sensor’s sensitivity to detect PFAS at the much lower concentrations typically found in drinking water, reaching down to the nanogram level.

Collaborating closely with BAM’s experts in surface and sensor science, the research team has been able to advance the sensor’s design and functionality.

Advanced imaging and surface analyses have been pivotal in developing the chemical nanostructures on the sensor chips, ensuring their optimal performance.

The goal moving forward is to refine the sensor, making it portable and sensitive enough for on-site use at spill locations and for

The research findings can be found in Analytical Chemistry.

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