UK:Development of a marketable nanoparticle-assisted high-throughput prototype system for chemical speciation measurements of trace elements (DIFFNAL)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Earth Sciences


Polluted water, soil and air are responsible for the diseases that kill at least nine million people worldwide and cost trillions of dollars every year according to a recent research. Contamination with trace elements such as arsenic, mercury, and chromium of an increasing ecological and global public health concern and at the top of the list for environmental legislations. The mobility and toxicity of trace elements depends especially on their chemical forms (or species) rather than their total content. For example, while trivalent chromium (chromite) can be considered a dietary supplement, hexavalent chromium (chromate) is toxic and potentially carcinogenic.

Because different elemental species exhibit very different physiochemical properties and varying toxicities, it is becoming vital and increasingly demanded by many regulatory, health and safety organisations to measure and monitor these individual toxic elemental species in the environment. However, the current lacking in any robust speciation technique limits our ability to monitor and control environmental pollution. This lack of analytical ability also poses a challenge to many other branches of analytical chemistry. We have recently developed a novel device (termed DIFFNAL) that has the potential to provide rapid analysis of speciation of a wide variety of samples. This combines membrane technology with design of novel sortable active nanomaterials with special characteristics. This proposal seeks to build and commercialise a DIFFNAL device for chromium speciation. This project also seeks to form an Oxford University spin-out company that would build and commercialise new lines of the technology including single analyte and multi-analyte DIFFNAL instruments.

DIFFNAL is a completely novel technology for the following reasons:
1- Highly sensitive and selective ion separation technology
2- Single-step and fast separation (< 10 min) with no or minimum sample handling
3- No specialised user training required
4- An environmentally friendly technology as no harmful reagents or solvents required.
5- Capability to re-sample quickly and to process a large number of samples per day
6- Critically, it maintains the 'chemical character' and distribution of species and hence reflects the 'true' fractionation of species in a sample, making it the only available technology capable of analysing air-sensitive or unstable samples.

The Oxford-Teledyne consortium specific aims are to:
1. Develop a functional single analyte DIFFNAL alpha-prototype system for chromium speciation in different types of matrixes including environmental samples.

2. Preliminary coupling tests of the DIFFNAL device with an ICP-OES. This initial coupling with ICP-OES is favoured over ICP-MS because of it simplicity and potential commercialisation due to low cost.

3. Benchmark the performance of DIFFNAL against existing technologies including the coupled HPLC-ICP-MS. Our initial analytical testing will be carried out using our existing Voltammtery-DIFFNAL system vs HPLC-ICP-MS.

4. Upon evaluation of the performance parameters, to develop marketing material and an investment prospectus for DIFFNAL technology.

5. An Oxford University spin-out company (NanoMetalytics) with be formed. The new spin-out will be responsible for the development of single- and multi-analyte DIFFNAL speciation systems for priority contaminants.

The DIFFNAL system has already been patented as a speciation technology. As such this technology presents the instrumental analytical sector with a novel approach for a novel, effective and low-cost chemical speciation technology. Given the increasing global pressure on regulating environmental contaminants and environmental monitoring of trace elements and the associated costs for chemical speciation, innovation in this area is extremely timely.

Keywords: DIFFNAL, Chemical Speciation; trace elements; water pollution, Mass spectrometry, ICP-MS, ICP-OES

Planned Impact

The DIFFNAL instrument has a potential to dramatically increase the speed and flexibility of analysis of chemical speciation, and would be a 'game changing' in many applications of analytical chemistry. Besides the importance of DIFFNAL as a tool for facilitating toxicological studies and environmental monitoring, it is expected to play a major role in key industries such as mining. For example, understanding cyanide speciation would help reducing costs and waste by selecting the most appropriate form (free cyanide vs thiocyanate) in gold exploration. Speciation analysis also helps in assessing the risks posed by discharge or treatment process and help optimising the performance of technical processes.

This project has major potential impacts on the global analytical market, in environmental, economic and societal terms. Environmental and economic benefits that will accrue directly through the Oxford-Teledyne collaboration as a result of the proposed project include:

1- Commercialisation of an academic invention through a new collaboration with a private sector company;

2- Development of a novel technology for a diversity of chemical speciation measurements whilst offering significantly enhanced performance compared to that of existing technologies;

3- Establishment of a new spin-out company and technology for export;

4- Enhancement of existing toxic element regulations and standard methods through development of a "step-changing" technology;

5- Provision of significant cost savings to a wide range of analytical laboratories and a contribution to improving water treatment and risk assessment sectors.

6- Through Teledyne and its sub-contractors, the UK will benefit from equipment sales and license of IP.

Specific benefits that will accrue outside the Oxford-Teledyne collaboration include:

1- An increase in economic activity, triggered through the use of the DIFFNAL product internationally in the private sector;
2- Enhanced activity throughout the technology manufacturing supply chain;
3- The international market will benefit from a new generation of chemical speciation technology;
4- Increased environmental quality standards will be achieved;
5- Security of clean water supply will be realised through enabling novel approaches for routine chemical speciation of trace elements in conjunction with appropriate contaminant control technologies.


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