Researchers from Australia’s CSIRO and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) have developed a sensor glove capable of protecting people from potentially lethal nerve agents known as organophospates (OPs) – present in some of the world's scariest chemical weapons and in some pesticide-contaminated foods.
OPs work by blocking the brain’s ability to transmit signals to the body, shutting down vital organs and eventually causing death. They’re the active agents in infamous chemical weapons such as VX and sarin – the latter used by Aum Shinrikyo terrorists to kill 12 passengers in a Tokyo subway attack in 1995 and, to gas Syrian citizens in April 2017.
They’re also the active ingredients in a number of agricultural insecticides.
The CSIRO-UCSD research teams’ new ‘lab-on-a-glove’, the result of intensive collaboration, was designed primarily to provide defence and forensic industry personnel with reliably accurate, real-time onsite chemical screening, enabling rapid response to terrorist threats
But this smart new technology also has important applications the food security industry as a fast, effective screening tool for OP-contaminated food – at the farm gate and further along the supply chain.
How does the lab-on-a-glove work?
The ‘smart’ OP-detector system consists of a disposable glove with a carbon-pad ‘swab’ on the thumb and biosensor on its index finger, printed in specially-designed stretchable ink that flexes with the glove’s movement.
The glove works by collecting electrochemical measurements of the enzyme breakdown products of OP compounds in a given sample, says CSIRO researcher Dr Lee Hubble.
“A printed carbon pad on the thumb collects nerve-agent residues from suspect samples swiped by the user,” he explains. “A biosensor on the index finger, containing an enzyme that reacts with OPs, acts as a scanner.”
Contact between the thumb and index finger activates a scan for the electrochemical analysis of the sample.”
After sampling the potentially contaminated area or foodstuff, the wearer pinches his or her index finger and thumb together, triggering the glove’s embedded electronics to analyse the sample.
A miniature measuring device known as a ‘potentiostat’, attached to the back of the gloved hand and connected to the index finger via a ring bandage, then transmits the resulting analysis wirelessly to any connected device – tablet, laptop or smartphone.
What’s so great about it?
Professor Joseph Wang, Director of the Jacobs School of Engineering’s Center for Wearable Sensors at UCSD, says one of the system’s strengths is its capacity to deliver real-time results quickly and practically in the field.
“This is enabled by a portable and reusable measuring device, attached to the back of the hand and connected to the index finger via a ring bandage,” he says.
The glove, sensors and embedded circuitry are all flexible enough to withstand what CSIRO refers to as “extreme operating conditions”.
Dr Hubble is optimistic about the commercial potential of the co-invention. “This wearable chemical sensor technology provides accurate and fast chemical screening for defence and forensic industries,” he says.
“We also see an opportunity within food safety and security,” says UCSD’s Professor Wang.
Ongoing research by the Australian-US team is directed towards two goals:
- miniaturising the OP-detecting glove’s electronics further; and
- developing new sensors with the capacity to screen for other target compounds.