The development of new materials is the key factor in making this massive increase in sensitivity possible.
Polymer particles around a micron in size are coated with metal oxide nanoparticles. This design is more porous than a flat surface and increases the surface area and thus the sensitivity of the material. Droplets of these coated polymers are placed on series of electrodes that heat up, causing the polymer to burn up leaving a film of metal oxide behind to detect electrical changes in the gases passing over the electrodes.
While no actual breathalyzer devices have been manufactured using this method, these metal oxide sensors were able to sense the diabetes biosensor acetone when it was present in the parts per billion in a simulated breath test. This is over 100 times more sensitive than any previous breathalyzer technology and are also more sensitive to acetone than any existing blood test. This means that a breathalyzer using this technology could diagnose diabetes at an earlier stage than any other existing test, and diabetes detection is just one of many possible applications for the technology.
Unfortunately, any practical application of this technology is at least a decade away according to head researcher, Assistant Professor Carlos Martinez of Purdue’s Material Engineering department. For one thing, precise manufacturing standards are needed to ensure accurate diagnoses.
TFOT has previously reported on other medical technology incorporating nanotechnology including “smart bombs” that can deliver a virus to attack cancer cells, an engineered nanostructure to deliver inhaled insulin, gold nanorods that target cancer cells without interfering with nearby healthy cells, and the development of nanobots that can travel against the blood flow in human arteries and veins.
Read more about the new breathalyzer technology in this Purdue University press release.