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Scientists at UCSB Develop Nanotech Device to Detect Explosives

The canine olfactory system inspired researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara to design a detector that uses nanotechnology and is capable of identifying minute amounts of vapor molecules. [1]

Results published in Analytical Chemistry [2] by the research group led by Professors Carl Meinhart of Mechanical Engineering and Martin Moskovits of Chemistry show that their device, fabricated in Nanotech, part of the University of California NNIN Node, can detect the primary vapor, 2,4-dinitrotoluene, emanating from explosives based on TNT.

The scent receptors in “sniffer” dogs will use a mucus layer to absorb and concentrate airborne molecules, which allows greater sensitivity than the human nose. Using this concept, researchers designed a detector that uses microfluidic channels that can concentrate these vapor molecules upto six orders of magnitude, and allow the molecules to interact with nanoparticles that will amplify their spectral signature for detection using a laser spectrometer.

According to Meinhart, “The technology could be used to detect a very wide variety of molecules. The applications could extend to certain disease diagnosis or narcotics detection, to name a few.”.

A video created by the UCSB College of Engineering with Professors Meinhart and Moskovits discussing their creation can be found at


[1] Original News Release can be found at

[2] B.D. Piorek, S.J. Lee, M. Moskovits and C.D. Meinhart “Free-Surface Microfluidics/Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy for Real-Time Trace Vapor Detection of Explosives”, Anal. Chem., 84, 9700-9705, (2012).