Ultra-sensitive molecular detection

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Materials


The technical ability to detect low concentrations of dangerous gases in the atmosphere is central to successful environmental monitoring. For example, warehouses containing chemical storage tanks with the potential for leakage, or sites where there have been toxic chemical spills, require continuous measurement of volatile compounds. Ultra sensitive monitoring is also important for battlefield detection of chemical warfare agents and at security posts in airports and tunnels. For these applications gas sensors based on optical absorption or chromatography and spectrometry are able to satisfy the molecular sensitivity and specificity requirements. However, the drawback with these detectors is that they are large, expensive, and delicate. Alternatively, electrochemical gas sensors are robust and relatively cheap, but they lack the necessary sensitivity and selectivity below the part per million threshold. The research carried out within this project will lead to the development of a gas sensor that has high sensitivity and selectivity combined with the technological simplicity of an electrochemical gas sensor. This is achieved through the use of a network of conducting molecules. Ultimately, this work will lead to the development of a new family of light and rugged ultra-sensitive molecular detectors.

Planned Impact

The primary commercial beneficiaries of this research are sensor manufacturers who will be able to license the technology and develop the new type of sensors for incorporation into established detector designs. An important aspect of the project will be the filing of a patent to ensure intellectual property protection for industrial collaborators or licensees. This process will be dealt with in close collaboration with ISIS Innovation, the University of Oxford technology transfer company. A company manufacturing the new sensor will be more competitive internationally, and there are a number of UK companies that could fit that mould. With the widespread use of the new highly sensitive and selective detectors there will be many societal benefits including rapid and more widespread screening of explosives at airports, tunnels, and other security checkpoints. There are also significant impacts for the military. Because the detector technology can easily be miniaturised, it will allow molecular detection devices to be incorporated into small instruments or clothing. One could conceive of a battlefield scenario in which chemical nerve agents are thought to be a danger, and where each advancing soldier is equipped with a detector integrated into their watch that will provide a warning if warfare agents are detected. The creation of such devices is simply not possible today with the current range of gas detection technologies. To ensure widespread dissemination of the results, following patent protection, the work will be published in international peer reviewed journals and presented at conferences. Industrial interest will be stimulated through the support of the Sensors and Instrumentation Knowledge Centre which is part of the ESP Knowledge Transfer Network.


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Lefferts M (2015) Vapour sensing of explosive materials in Analytical Methods

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Lefferts M (2018) Electrical percolation through a discontinuous Au nanoparticle film in Applied Physics Letters

Description I have developed a new type of sensor that can detect very low concentrations of analytes in the gas phase. We carried out proof of principle experiments and are now developing the sensor further for explosives vapour detection.
Exploitation Route We have submitted a patent for the new technology. Once we have a working model sensor we anticipate that an industrial partner will be able to take the sensor forward into production.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Chemicals,Environment,Healthcare

Description The exploratory work on the new sensor design that was supported through the EPSRC award led to some initial results that appear to support the proof of concept. To further develop the sensor I have secured further funding from Dstl, Find a Better Way, and EPSRC.
First Year Of Impact 2012
Sector Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Chemicals
Impact Types Economic

Description DSTL
Amount £137,000 (GBP)
Funding ID RFQ72569 
Organisation Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (DSTL) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2013 
End 04/2017
Description Wearable and flexible technologies enabled by advanced thin-film manufacture and metrology
Amount £2,476,881 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/M015173/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2015 
End 04/2019
Description iCASE
Amount £144,230 (GBP)
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2016 
End 09/2020
Description Development of an ultra sensitive molecular detector 
Organisation Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (DSTL)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution A PhD student in Oxford is carrying out research into a new kind of sensor for the detection of low concentrations of vapours of explosive materials.
Collaborator Contribution Our partners (Dstl) are sponsoring the project and will provide access to material that are not available in Oxford.
Impact We have published a paper on explosives vapour sensing. The collaboration has also led to two further grants, one EPSRC, and a further Dstl grant.
Start Year 2013
Description Theory of the percolation sensor 
Organisation University of Nottingham
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have provided the experimental effort to develop the sensor.
Collaborator Contribution The partners have provided the theoretical effort to model the sensor.
Impact n/a
Start Year 2013
Title Sensor 
Description A new type of sensor was discovered and developed. 
IP Reference GB1306097.5 
Protection Patent application published
Year Protection Granted 2013
Licensed No
Impact Because the sensor is patent protected a number of interested parties, Dstl and Find a Better Way, have funded further research into the development of the sensor.