Using Legos to Build a Chemical Weapons Detector

Legos and a smartphone are components of a device that detects and quantifies nerve agents.

Researchers recently found a way to combine the use of a cell phone (more specifically its camera), Lego building blocks and a UV lamp to help build an open-source tool for detecting nerve agents. The odorless and tasteless nature of these substances makes them very difficult to detect, but combining a new methodology with some well-known objects allows for detecting these poisons and quantifying how much is present.

Nerve agents shut off enzymes that control the body's nervous system, which is why death can occur within minutes. This makes speed of detection a priority, but faster instruments are expensive. Adding to the complexity of the situation is the use of two main categories in classifying nerve agents – each of which requires unique decontamination protocols. Existing tools are not as effective in differentiating between these classes, which differ in terms of toxicity, the amount of harm that can be caused, and the proper treatment.

All of these dynamics led Eric Anslyn, Edward M. Marcotte, and colleagues to develop an instrument set-up and methodology that addressed these issues, but would also be affordable and simple to use. Their approach created a system that amplifies the optical signal produced by a byproduct of the nerve agents as they begin to decompose.

The resulting mixtures change both the color and intensity of this emission, which can be picked up and analyzed by an instrument comprised of the aforementioned items, a standard 96-well test plate and software that is now available for free. The researchers uploaded their analytic code, image guides and a demonstration video to GitHub in an effort to boost its availability.


Image Credit: American Chemical Society

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