A new sensor picks up signatures of tributyl phosphate, a solvent used to enrich uranium, including for use in a nuclear weapon. Enzymes can detect tributyl phosphate signatures, but the lifespan of the enzymes is too short to make them practical for sensors.
This work is focused on how to make the sensors work reliably for long periods of time. The biological component — the enzyme that's responsible for the detection — is the component with the shortest lifespan.
The work includes creating complex computer simulations of how the enzymes will react in various situations, enabling the researchers to obtain a very detailed picture. Using the simulations, they can look at a single atom at a time and begin to observe the behavior.
The team envisions a small, discreet sensor that could rapidly and accurately detect tributyl phosphate signatures at distances sufficient for investigators to make crucial decisions. The sensor could be deployed remotely, possibly disguised as a leaf or attached to a uniform.
For researchers, the key challenge will be coming up with a strategy to immobilize enzymes on a polymer-coated surface, where the chemical signal gets turned into an electric signal and goes to a computer.
The research could also lead to a better fundamental understanding of enzymes that would be useful in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries, and biotechnology.