Chemists awarded $1.3 million grant to detect harmful agents

By Daniel J. Fitzgibbons

A team of Chemistry faculty has been awarded a three-year, $1.3 million grant by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) to develop new, more accurate techniques for detecting the presence of harmful agents.

In their study, Richard Vachet, Vincent Rotello and Sankaran “Thai” Thayumanavan will use a combination of nanotechnology and mass spectrometry to isolate and identify minute amounts of two types of hazardous substances: endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and microcystins, water-borne toxins that are considered potential bio-warfare agents.

“The Navy is always interested in new ways to detect compounds that have adverse effects on its personnel or operations,” says Vachet, the principle investigator on the project. “They’re interested in methods that can detect more rapidly and with more sensitivity in ways that are less prone to error.”

EDCs, a broad class of chemicals found in pesticides, detergents and other industrial products, are increasingly found in environmental waters and cannot be completely removed by wastewater treatment systems on land or aboard ships.

“Effective detection of EDCs is important because exposure to these compounds is implicated in breast cancer, weakened immune systems, thyroid dysfunction and reproductive problems in young adults,” says Vachet. “The Navy needs sensitive ways to check that its waste disposal methods are effective and safe.”

Rotello and Thayumanavan will design nanoparticles measuring 20 billionths of a meter that are coated with chemicals to capture the target compounds. Since the surface area to volume ratio actually increases as the size of particles decreases, the researchers could increase the capture of the target compounds by as much as 100 times more than currently used methods. “That’s a huge jump,” says Vachet.

Once the compounds are gathered on the nanoparticles, they will be controllably
assembled into larger super-structures for analysis by Vachet using mass spectrometry.

Using a laser, Vachet will release the captured compounds and use a spectrometer to measure their mass and identify the substances with “unprecedented sensitivity,” he says.

Vachet says much of the grant will support research assistantships for undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral students. The grant will also fund new equipment needed for detection technology as well as specialized chemicals to manufacture the nanoparticles.

According to the Vachet, the project is eligible for a fourth year of funding if research goals are met within a 30-month timeframe. The fourth year of the study would likely focus on using the technology to analyze actual contaminated samples, he says.