OptiEnz to develop biosensors

A spin-out from Colorado State University plans to manufacture biosensors that detect chemical contaminants in water and food.

Prof Ken Reardon, working in tandem with Cenergy, the university’s commercialisation arm, created OptiEnz Sensors to develop, manufacture and sell the biosensors, which rely on fluorescent light to identify contaminants.

With the devices, contaminants such as melamine, gasoline, solvents and nerve agents can be measured without pre-treating the sample with other chemicals, according to Reardon.

’You can use these biosensors wherever the water is – in a groundwater well, in a lake or in a wastewater treatment plant pipe,’ he said. ’You analyse the water where it is, rather than putting it into bottles for analysis in a remote laboratory.’

The technology relies on optoelectronics as well as biology. Two layers, consisting of a fluorescent chemical and enzymes, are applied to the tip of an optical fibre. When this tip is in contact with a water sample containing a contaminant, the enzymes cause the chemical to react in such a way that the brightness of the fluorescent chemical changes.

Each biosensor is designed to detect a specific chemical. For example, Reardon’s team has designed and tested a biosensor for benzene, a chemical that is potentially dangerous to human health that enters the environment from emissions from burning coal and oil, gasoline service stations and motor vehicle exhaust. Benzene also has received attention as a chemical being released from hydraulic fracturing at drilling sites.

’We are very excited about the potential of this solution to totally change the way we detect water and food contaminants – instantly and at the source,’ said Tim Reeser, Cenergy’s chief operating officer. ’If a tractor trailer turns over and spills fuel in a river, the technology provides a quick, simple way to test the water immediately right at the source of the accident as well as downstream. Previous to this technology, a water sample had to be sent to a lab to detect fuel contaminants.’

The OptiEnz Sensors technology has been developed over more than 10 years in Reardon’s laboratory at Colorado State University in collaboration with engineering professors Kevin Lear and David Dandy, along with several post-doctoral researchers and graduate and undergraduate students.

OptiEnz Sensors is working with several government and environment engineering companies to set up field tests for the sensors. Potential applications include homeland security, groundwater testing, environmental clean-up sites and food and beverage testing.

Ken Reardon, professor of chemical engineering, Brinson Willis, a graduate research assistant, and Omon Herigstad, an undergraduate research assistant, test their biosensor system