Wearables Could Detect Chemical Threats

In a time when chemical attacks have occurred in different parts of the world, the race is on to find better ways to identify harmful substances in a hurry. A major game-changer could be a new type of glove, outfitted with the latest biosensor technology that could analyze chemicals with a simple swipe of the finger.

The ‘lab-on-a-glove’ developed by us and the University of California, San Diego can detect OP compounds, a group of toxic chemicals found in some pesticides.

Wearables Beyond Individuals

Wearable devices are one of the fastest-growing areas of technology, and estimated to be worth over $34 billion by 2020. Until recently, they have mostly centered around health, fitness, and geolocation. You can monitor your heart rate and number of calories burned, and track the number of steps you've taken during your morning run, and always find your way back home thanks to the GPS on your wrist or in your pocket.

Scientists are now exploring new applications for wearable technology. One of the important frontiers is security. Consider the "lab on a glove," a concept developed by a team led by Joseph Wang at the University of California, San Diego that allows first responders to detect chemicals from explosives, gunpowder residue, drugs, or other substances (even on a suspect's clothing) without worry of injury from skin exposure or inadvertently compromising the crime scene.

The lab-on-a-glove uses a printed carbon pad on the thump to swipe for nerve agents. A special stretchable ink is printed onto the index finger in a serpentine design, ideal for stretching. The glove uses enzyme-based biosensors to detect OP nerve agents and integrated electronics to analyse the sample.

Wearables for Public Safety

Wang and colleague Joseph Hubble recently published an op-ed article in Chemistry World regarding the potential for their glove technology to help solve crimes and aid victims. It could not only detect chemicals in terror attacks, it could also help in accidents (such as environmental spills), and factory mishaps. Similar devices including a hazard-detecting badge developed by Timothy Swager and his team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) could also play a role. Eventually, they envision wearable technology that could simultaneously detect threats and alert first responders, saving precious time (and lives) in the event of an emergency.

Beyond the potential for external wearable devices such as glasses or clothing, Wang and Hubble are also intrigued by the future of non-invasive wearable technology integrated with the human body, citing the Derma Abyss project developed at MIT's Media Lab to serve as real-time health monitors for those with chronic health conditions such as diabetes. As they write, "The possibilities around what the future holds for wearable sensors are boundless, freeing ourselves from the laboratory bench and taking chemical analysis directly to people."

Chemical Weapons Q&A

Written by Jamie Ludwig July 25, 2017

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