Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Liesbeth Venema, a Senior Editor at Nature.
As a recent comment in Nature pointed out (Lab life: Scientists are snobs), it’s all too easy to get carried away at big multi-session conferences and gravitate towards presentations given by high-flying scientists and those from top institutes. Encountering some down-to-earth research can be a healthy antidote.
At the recent annual American Physical Society meeting in Baltimore, a young researcher approached the Nature stand and told me about a project in his lab: the development of a wireless sensor to detect traces of methanol in liquids. I wasn’t immediately sure why this would be so important, but then he told me the motivation for the work.
As it turned out, the researcher came from the University de los Andes, in Bogotá, Colombia. In Colombia (and many other countries) organized crime gangs run an illicit alcoholic drinks industry and unscrupulously mix their wares with methanol to make them cheaper. And the problem with methanol is that it is extremely toxic and can lead to blindness (and even death) depending on how much is ingested.
Around 300,000 bottles of adulterated alcoholic beverages were confiscated by authorities in Colombia in 2011. Ideally of course, the criminal networks need to be closed down, but in the meantime, affordable sensors that consumers can use to test alcoholic drinks would be a practical, life-saving solution to the immediate problem.
The Colombian group has been working on a wireless battery-free sensor which can be dipped in a liquid and pick up the presence of unwanted compounds. It is small and simple, but elegantly designed, consisting of a resonating electronic circuit that detects variations in its environment as changes in its resonance frequency. The group previously demonstrated such a sensor to detect hazardous compounds in water (Diego A. Sanz et al. Sensors and Actuators B: Chemical Volume 178, 1 March 2013, Pages 26–33).
Their current prototype methanol sensor can detect concentrations as small as 0.2% in 40% alcoholic beverages, which is even better than the methanol limit (0.4%) set by health agencies. At the moment, the read-out equipment is too expensive for general use (the sensor itself costs only a few dollars), but the researchers are improving the sensor’s sensitivity so that a cheaper analyser could do the job.
There is a fast growing body of work on point-of-care sensors and imagers, often based on mobile phones, that can be deployed in under-developed countries. Such efforts are not about creating ultra-high precision, highly-engineered sensors, but making ones that are as simple as possible and yet have sufficient sensitivity for a targeted health application. Affordable, low-maintenance systems for monitoring the quality of water, food and other goods could play an essential role in protecting the health of millions of people.
It may not seem the most glamorous type of research work, but perhaps it should.