Nanoparticle and chemical sensors using optical microcavities

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Materials


The development of quantum technologies produces high precision instrumentation and components that can benefit a wide range of applications. In this project we use miniature optical resonators, developed for quantum communications and computing, to sense nanoparticles and chemicals. The ability to measure and analyse chemicals and nanoscale particles in fluids is of increasing importance to the modern world. Blood tests, screening for allergens and contaminants in food, developing new medicines for cancer treatment, or measuring air quality in buildings and vehicles are all applications for which high performance sensors are required with sensitivity to minute quantities of material. The 'quantum' resonators offer a step change in performance compared to existing devices. A new spin-out company from the University of Oxford, HighQ Instruments Ltd, is being set up both to develop the sensors and to market resonator components to the quantum technologies and photonics industries. This Innovate UK project will provide support for the construction of the first prototype for a nanoparticle sensor product, and for a parallel R&D programme to advance the technology and develop chemical sensors for a range of applications.

Planned Impact

The project will bring significant economic benefit to the UK across several areas. Firstly it will provide a powerful new tool
for the study of nanoparticles in fluids, and bring competitive advantage to pharmaceuticals companies, which constitute
approximately 1% of the UK economy with exports worth over £20bn. Benefits may also be found in chemical engineering,
where nanoparticle shape is known to impact catalytic properties, or biomedical nanoscience, which includes topics as
diverse as cancer metastasis, Alzheimer's disease, and pre-eclampsia in pregnancy. These benefits are difficult to quantify but will manifest as increased productivity and accelerated progress in R&D. Secondly, the project will impact the growth of
Quantum Technologies by providing a source of optical microcavities as components for control of the light-matter
interaction, for example for the development of single photon sources for quantum communications and nodes in quantum
computers. The microcavities and associated materials may also find application in the wider field of photonics, a key
technological sector worth £10.5bn and employing 70,000 workers in the UK alone, by offering potential for the
development of new microphotonics products. With unique manufacturing capabilities for precision optics, the spin out
company partner may become an important part of the UK supply chain for these areas of technology. Thirdly, the business
of the spin-out company will benefit the UK photonics sector via its supply chain, which will include OEM components for
the sensor instruments such as lasers and detectors, mirror coating suppliers and other optical components.
Social impact will be generated by creation of jobs and training of skilled workers. The company expects to hire 6 people
within the first three years, and seeks to grow to 15 employees within a five year period, primarily in component
manufacture, instrument assembly and sales/marketing as demand increases.
Long term benefits of improved chemical and nanoparticle sensors include a number of high priority areas such as point of
care diagnostics, environmental monitoring, and security of air and water supplies. The work in this project will also support
further basic research, such as a tantalising new route to spectroscopic measurements of single molecules in fluids. If
successful this work would open up a vast range of possibilities to deepen scientific understanding of molecular behaviour.


10 25 50
Description The award contributed significantly to the collaborative R&D project with Oxford HighQ to develop instrumentation for nanoparticle analysis. Specifically we developed methodologies for stabilisation of microcavity devices essential for high sensitivity (low-noise) operation, and for real-time data analysis. These methods were adopted by the company in the prototype instrument. Additional work on high throughput methods for particle analysis have been developed and at the time of writing we are in the process of establishing their commercial potential.
Within the award we also tested some colorimetric assays for nutrient sensing in water supplies. We found reliable assays for nitrate and phosphates that we hope will form the basis for new technologies in water quality monitoring with benefits to the environment, public health, and businesses.
Exploitation Route Spinout Oxford HighQ Ltd is using the results of this work in bringing new nanoparticle instrumentation to market. The instruments will benefit Nanomedicine research by providing accurate measurements of drug loading at the single nanoparticle level. The company also plans to develop water quality monitoring instruments and is currently using the assays we tested as the basis for tesbed demonstrators.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology

Description The findings of this project have been used by collaboration partner Oxford HighQ Ltd in the development of nanoparticle analysis instruments and chemical sensors. Findings included real-time data processing methods and simulations of nanoparticle sensing which feed into an instrument for accurate characterisation of nanoparticles targeting drug deliverey applications. Also colorimetric assays for the sensing of nutrients in water including nitrates and phosphates. These results helped to contribute to the success of the Collaborative R&D project which has led to additional awards for the company, including a SMART grant, an analysis 4 Innovators grant, a DSTL small project grant, and an Institute of Physics Business Award. The work led directly to the outsourcing of electronics manufacture to UK company Azureus Solutions. Since the end of the project the company has employed a further four full-time engineers to develop the technology. The outcomes of the project triggered the release of £1m of private investment from Longwall LLC.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Electronics,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology
Impact Types Economic

Title Nanoparticle analyser 
Description An instrument to accurately measure the polarisability of nanoparticles in fluids. 
Type Of Material Technology assay or reagent 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact The research tool is being developed into a commercial product by Oxford HighQ Ltd, to be launched later this year. 
Description DSTL sensing 
Organisation Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (DSTL)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Development of sensing technology
Collaborator Contribution Financial support via an iCASE studentship
Impact No outcomes yet.
Start Year 2020