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 imoved 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.


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