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Centre for Novel Agricultural Products

Clean Technology

Biosensors - Advanced optical waveguide biosensors for the detection of illicit drugs and explosives
Funded by the BBSRC
Professor Neil Bruce (CNAP) and Professor Nick Goddard (University of Manchester)

Exposing Explosives flyer (PDF , 851kb)

The proliferation of illicit drugs, explosives, new technologies, and expertise increases the potential for drug smugglers and terrorists to evade our existing countermeasures at points of entry to and exit from the UK. Present methods for the detection of illicit drugs and explosives leave much to be desired.  To allow analysis to occur in the 'field' there is an urgent need for the development of on-site testing. To address this challenge, we are aiming to develop novel inexpensive sensors to rapidly and effectively detect particulate drugs and explosives.

We have identified microbial enzymes that have high activity and specificity towards illicit drugs and explosives and have shown that these enzymes can be used as recognition components in sensors. Enzyme catalysed processes naturally occur in aqueous (water-based) environments; however, the presence of water is far from ideal in a sensor that has to be exposed to air for long periods of time, because it tends to evaporate. We are therefore exploring the potential for ionic liquids (salts that are molten at room temperature) as alternative media for optical waveguide sensors. Room temperature ionic liquids (RTILs) possess a range of properties that make them desirable solvents, such as zero vapour pressure and being classified as environmentally friendly.  We recently designed and created a new generation of functionalized ionic liquids that have increased hydromimetic (water-like) properties yet retain all the advantages of traditional RTILs. Using these RTILs we have shown that it is possible to obtain enzyme catalysis with complex (co-factor requiring) enzymes at very low levels of water (less than 100 ppm). These novel funtionalized ionic liquids, along with the appropriate enzymes and reagents will be deposited as thin film wave guides on low-cost moulded polymeric devices.

This project a unique collaboration between Dstl of the MoD, the Home Office, RTIL producers Bioniqs Ltd., and a multidisciplinary team of academics with expertise in enzymology, ionic liquid chemistry and sensor technologies to develop a commercially viable enzyme-based, prototype handheld biosensor for the detection of particulate illicit drugs and high explosives.



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  • CNAP celebrated its 20th anniversary in December 2019!

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CNAP Director, Professor Neil Bruce

CNAP, Department of Biology, University of York, Wentworth Way, York YO10 5DD, UK