VICKSBURG, Miss. — U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) researchers teamed up with researchers at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory (DEVCOM ARL) to develop the photonic integrated circuit (PIC), a new technology that captures and detects harmful water-borne contaminants in the environment.
The technology uses tiny beams of light to probe a glass-like surface smaller than a human hair. The team anticipates that ― due to the device’s microscopic size — one day millions of PIC sensors could fit on the corner of a smartphone to permit real-time reporting of contamination.
“Through high-impact publications and a conference presentation delivered by ERDC’s Drs. Gilbert Kosgei and Ashvin Fernando, our collaborators at DEVCOM ARL were able to get a sense of ERDC’s expertise,” ERDC Research Chemist Dr. Matthew Glasscott said. “We all saw an opportunity to integrate our materials with their instrument to detect contaminants within our military and civil mission spaces.”
By placing a thin binding material on the PIC’s surface, specific contaminants of interest can be captured and detected at parts-per-trillion concentrations. The powerful sensors permit the detection of a single drop of contamination in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
The key to this technology is selecting a contamination binding material. In 2021, DEVCOM ARL requested assistance from Glasscott to develop special binding materials called molecularly imprinted polymers (MIP). Glasscott had previously published ERDC’s advances with MIP technology in peer-reviewed journals Environmental Science and Technology and Applied Polymer Materials.
In order to be used in DEVCOM ARL’s sensor, the binding material had to meet three specifications. It had to be ultra-thin to fit on the small sensor; it needed to be computationally designed to bind specific contaminants; and it had to be reusable for multiple rounds of sensing.
With these considerations in mind, ERDC Materials Scientist Dr. Jared Cobb discovered an innovative method to generate nano-scale polymer films.
“These films interact with visible light in new ways to produce colors that are not typically found in the rainbow,” Cobb said. “This is due to a phenomenon called thin-film interference with our ultra-thin polymer, and because we can precisely control the thickness of the films, we can also precisely control how they interact with visible light.”
Drs. Caite Bresnahan and Tim Schutt, members of the ERDC computational chemistry team, developed a computational framework to optimize potential candidate materials for their binding interactions with target molecules. “Our procedure allows for a quick screening to reduce the amount of time and effort required for each new iteration of MIP-based contaminant sensors,” Bresnahan said.
Glasscott traveled to Adelphi, Maryland, to personally deliver the binding technology to DEVCOM ARL, using their advanced clean room facility to successfully demonstrate ERDC’s material as a reusable sensor.
The technology transfer has resulted in a promising new instrument for sensing harmful contaminants, which ERDC and DEVCOM ARL will continue to develop collaboratively through Fiscal Year 2023.
“The future of this photonic technology is bright, and our team looks forward to leveraging the Power of ERDC along with DEVCOM ARL capabilities to bring it to fruition for Soldiers and citizens alike,” Glasscott said.