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Fields & Applications Sensors, Forensics

Toy Story

LEGO claims: “You can build anything.” And now, an international team from the US and China are testing that motto to the limit. The researchers have housed a sensor in a box made of the toy bricks, in an attempt to create an improved (and portable) nerve agent detector.

Nerve agents are very much on the map since the Novichok ‘outbreak’ in Wiltshire, UK. The fact they are highly toxic, yet odorless and colorless, makes them a particularly formidable foe – requiring sensitive instrumentation to detect. Current detection methods, such as UV/Vis-, fluorescence spectroscopy or circular dichroism spectropolarimetry, tend to be costly and difficult to transport.

This detector’s modest exterior belies the sophistication within; by combining a smartphone, digital photography and fluoride/thiol self-propagating protocols for fluorometric signal amplification, the researchers were able to determine analytes at levels comparable with more traditional techniques. Both easy to construct and to reconfigure, the LEGO exterior can also be dismantled for easy transportation – and costs a lot less than a 3D printed device. Just don’t step on it with bare feet…

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  1. X Sun et al., “Photography coupled with self-propagating chemical cascades: differentiation and quantitation of G- and V-nerve agent mimics via chromaticity”, ACS Cent Sci, [epub ahead of print] (2018).

About the Author

Joanna Cummings

A former library manager and storyteller, I have wanted to write for magazines since I was six years old, when I used to make my own out of foolscap paper and sellotape and distribute them to my family. Since getting my MSc in Publishing, I’ve worked as a freelance writer and content creator for both digital and print, writing on subjects such as fashion, food, tourism, photography – and the history of Roman toilets. Now I can be found working on The Analytical Scientist, finding the ‘human angle’ to cutting-edge science stories.

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