Liquid Crystal Sensors for Volatile Organics

Period of Performance: 08/01/2016 - 01/31/2017


Phase 1 SBIR

Recipient Firm

Platypus Technologies, LLC
5520 Nobel Drive Suite 100
Madison, WI 53711
Principal Investigator
Principal Investigator


SUMMARYAromatic volatile organic compounds (aVOCs) such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes (BTEX)depress the central nervous system upon short-term exposure and upon long term-exposure can lead toreproductive system damage and dermatitis. Benzene, present in gasoline and crude oil, and one of the twentymost common chemical manufacturing materials in the US, is carcinogenic. As the American PetroleumInstitute stated in 1948 ?the only absolutely safe concentration of benzene is zero.? aVOCs are difficult todetect and measure due to their lack of reactivity. This makes corrective actions and exposure awarenessdifficult. To address the increased concern over ambient levels of aVOCs, this proposal seeks to develop andvalidate a new sensing mechanism for aVOCs based on liquid crystals (LCs). The proposed LC sensortechnology will enable development of low cost sensors for widespread personal exposure monitoring andwarning. Such sensors are timely as the NIEHS strategic plan for 2012-2017 includes a major focus on?enhancing our ability to quantify individual exposures and responses to environmental toxins?. Thecommercially available options of infrared, photoionization and metal oxide detectors are cost prohibitive forpersonal and environmental monitoring: as increased sensitivity and accuracy are needed, the cost rises,limiting the number of sites and personnel that can be monitored, and devices also become too large to beworn. There is thus an unmet need for more compact, more affordable, accurate, sensitive devices tomeasure aVOCs in real time across a range of concentrations that are relevant to both personal andenvironmental monitoring. Whereas Platypus Technologies has previously developed LC sensors for reactivegases, this proposal seeks to establish proof of concept for a fundamentally new approach applicable to non-reactive aVOCs. The advances in technology required to meet this new challenge are substantial, and includedevelopment of a new sensor design ? elastically strained LCs ? and surface chemistry ? fluorphenyl surfaces.The risks inherent in this project justify support via the Phase I SBIR mechanism. The two main technical aimsof this Phase I SBIR project focus on ways to enhance and tune sensitivity: first, capitalizing on the recentlydiscovered phenomenon of using elastically strained LCs for sensitive target detection; and second, throughdevelopment of a novel surface chemical interaction that is uniquely applicable to sensing of aVOCs usingLCs. The outcome is anticipated to be proof of principle that these approaches can form the basis of compact,robust, inexpensive, accurate sensors suitable for detecting a broad range of aVOC vapor concentrations inthe workplace and environment.