New nerve gas detector built using Lego blocks and a smartphone

June 27 (UPI) — Scientists at the University of Texas have built a nerve gas detector using Lego blocks, a smartphone and other materials. The technology could help first responders and scientists identify the presence of deadly toxic gases like VX and sarin.

Nerve-agents are odorless, tasteless gases that can be used as chemical weapons. They can cause serious illness or death in a matter of minutes.

“Chemical weapons are dangerous threats to humanity,” Eric Anslyn, a chemistry professor at Texas, said in a news release. “Detection and neutralization are key to saving lives.”

To detect nerve-agents, scientists combined a chemical sensor with a smartphone camera. Researchers housed the sensor inside a small box made out of Lego bricks.

To test their technology, scientists used non-toxic gases that look and behave just like nerve-agents. During lab tests, scientists tweaked the sensor to generate unique fluorescence for each type of nerve-agent. Different colors and levels of brightness signify the presence of different toxic gases.

The smartphone camera is used to photograph the sensor’s different fluorescent responses.

“Unfortunately, it can be difficult to see differences in the level of florescence with the naked eye in the field,” said researcher Xiaolong Sun. “And instruments used in the lab to measure florescence are not portable and cost $30,000. This device essentially takes photographs of the glowing.”

Scientists developed software to tap into the camera capabilities of the iPhone, but the software can be adapted for other smartphones.

The Lego contraption provides a lightweight structure to house the sensors and provide the darkness needed for the camera to successfully photograph the fluorescent signals. The only other necessary materials are an ultraviolet light source and a standard 96-well test plate.

The lightweight contraption is mobile and efficient, yielding fast results. When detecting potential nerve gases, some of which require different decontamination procedures, timeliness is vital. The technology is also relatively cheap to build.

Scientists detailed their new nerve gas detector Wednesday in the journal ACS Central Science.