Imagine being able to test your food in your very own kitchen to quickly determine if it carried any deadly microbes.
Research conducted at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and now being commercialized by Optokey may make that possible.
Optokey, a startup based in Hayward, California, has developed a miniaturized sensor based on Raman spectroscopy that can quickly and accurately detect or diagnose substances at a molecular level. “Our system can do chemistry, biology, biochemistry, molecular biology, clinical diagnosis, and chemical analysis,” said company president and co-founder Fanqing Frank Chen. “And our system can be implemented very cheaply, without much human intervention.”
The technology is based on surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy, a technique for molecular fingerprinting. While SERS is a highly sensitive analytical tool, the results are not easily reproducible. As a scientist at Berkeley Lab, Chen and colleagues developed a solution to this problem using what they called “nanoplasmonic resonators,” which measures the interaction of photons with an activated surface using nanostructures in order to do chemical and biological sensing. The method produces measurements much more reliably.
“At Optokey we’re able to mass produce this nanoplasmonic resonator on a wafer scale,” Chen said. “We took something from the R&D realm and turned it into something industrial-strength.”
The miniaturized sensors use a microfluidic control system for “lab on a chip” automated liquid sampling. The company is taking a page from the semiconductor industry in making its chip. “We’re leveraging knowledge acquired from high-tech semiconductor manufacturing methods to get the cost, the volume, and the accuracy in the chip,” said VP of Manufacturing Robert Chebi, a veteran of the microelectronic industry who previously worked at Lam Research and Applied Materials. “We’re also leveraging all the knowledge in lasers and optics for this specific Raman-based method.”
Chebi calls Optokey’s product a “biochemical nose,” or an advanced nanophotonic automated system, with sensitivity to the level of a single molecule, far superior to sensors on the market today. “Today’s detection and diagnosis methods are far from perfect—detection limits are in PPM (parts per million) and PPB (parts per billion),” he said. “Also, our system can provide information in minutes, or even on a continuous basis, versus other methods where it could take hours or even days, if samples have to be sent to another lab.”
The potential applications, he says, are vast, including food safety, environmental monitoring (of both liquids and gases), medical diagnosis, and chemical analysis. Optokey’s customers include a major European company interested in food safety, a Chinese petrochemical company interested in detecting impurities in its products, and a German company interested in point-of-care diagnosis.
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