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Revolutionary Sensor Detects Invisible ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Our Water

Revolutionary Sensor Detects Invisible ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Our Water


MIT chemists have made a significant breakthrough in the detection of hazardous substances in drinking water, crafting a sensor capable of identifying minuscule amounts of perfluoroalkyl and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Commonly found in various consumer products like food packaging and nonstick cookware, these “forever chemicals” are notorious for their persistence in the environment and potential adverse health effects, including cancer and hormonal disruptions.

The newly developed sensor technology is a game-changer, capable of pinpointing PFAS levels as low as 200 parts per trillion in water samples. This innovation opens the door for consumers to test their own drinking water for these harmful substances, offering a much-needed solution in sectors that frequently use PFAS, such as semiconductor manufacturing and firefighting equipment production.

Timothy Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry at MIT and the senior author of the study, highlighted the pressing need for such sensing technologies. Given the long-lasting nature of these chemicals, the ability to detect and eliminate them from our environment is crucial.

The sensor employs lateral flow technology, similar to that used in rapid Covid-19 tests and pregnancy tests. However, instead of antibodies, the sensor uses a special polymer, polyaniline, that changes its electrical resistance in the presence of PFAS. This allows for a precise measurement of PFAS levels, which can be relayed to an external device like a smartphone for easy reading.

Despite its promising capabilities, the current sensor model detects concentrations of PFBA and PFOA at levels not quite low enough to meet the strict guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency. However, ongoing research aims to refine the technology, with the goal of creating a more sensitive device capable of filtering larger water volumes and achieving the required detection thresholds.

We do envision a user-friendly, household system.

Swager envisions a user-friendly, household system where consumers can easily test their drinking water. Such a device would not only provide a more accessible and rapid testing method compared to current laboratory-based tests but could also pave the way for safer environmental practices in industries reliant on PFAS chemicals.

This advancement is a testament to the collaborative efforts of the MIT research team, supported by various fellowships and grants. As this technology progresses, it holds the promise of significantly impacting public health and safety by providing a practical solution for detecting and managing the presence of PFAS in drinking water.

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Dr. Ravindra Shinde is the editor-in-chief and the founder of The Science Dev. He is also a research scientist at the University of Twente, the Netherlands. His research interests include computational physics, computational materials, quantum chemistry, and exascale computing. His mission is to disseminate cutting-edge research to the world through succinct and engaging cover stories.

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