Mimicking Nature to Create a Chemical Sensor
IntroductionHi! My name is Chris Storer, I’m a fourth (and final) year PhD student here at the University of Manchester. I’m originally from Warrington, in the North of England, and I came to Manchester to study an undergraduate degree in Biomedical Materials Science.
I find the interaction between nature and science to be fascinating, especially the way that new, cutting edge technologies take inspiration from biology. Evolution has already provided ingenious solutions to challenges that engineers face every day.
This led me to pursue my PhD in polymer sensors, where I try to understand how the sense of smell and taste work in nature. The aim is to use this knowledge to create a portable chemical sensor – just like the hand-held sensors you see scientists using to scan things in Sci-Fi movies!
How I got here
This led me to studying Biomedical Materials Engineering at university – an interdisciplinary science that gave me a lot of freedom to study a range of topics and keep my options open.
Following this I started my PhD in Polymer Sensors, in the School of Electrical & Electronic Engineering here at Manchester. It really does go to show that you’re never stuck in one area of science – quite the opposite!
In DepthMy research takes inspiration from the binding sites found in the olfactory cells of the human nose. These very specialised receptors allow us to detect chemicals in the air and give us the sense of smell. I recreate these receptors by imprinting the chemical molecule that I want to detect into a plastic material, called a polymer. You can imagine this is a bit like pressing a piece of a jigsaw puzzle into a piece of play dough, but on a microscopic level. When I take the chemical molecule out, only that unique shape will fit back in place. And hey-presto, you’ve got a chemical receptor!
The tricky part is how you then turn this into an electrical signal to send to a computer to measure – like how a nerve cell sends information to your brain. For this I use a capacitor to measure the build-up of charged molecules on my sensor. This acts as a transducer – changing the chemical information into electrical information for measuring the chemicals in the environment.
Going FurtherA great video clip by Brian Cox on how animals use chemical sensors to navigate their environment through sight, smell and taste (BBC, “Wonders of Life” documentary):
A link to some of our research here at the University of Manchester involving chemical sensors for use in Agriculture: