Nanotechnology experts create new sensors, more accurate than ever

New approach allows researchers to see nanoscale activity in real time

Katie Willis - 14 June 2018

A new study on improving nanomechanical sensing has the potential to revolutionize nano-scale technology, says University of Alberta nanotechnology expert Wayne Hiebert.

Hiebert's recent research on resonant nanomechanical sensing produced a surprising discovery: using duller resonances produces clearer, more accurate results, by allowing sensors to detect miniscule changes in frequency. This allows researchers to see what's happening in real time on a nanoscale, molecule-by-molecule. Such sensors are used in a vast range of fields, from pharmaceuticals to defense.

"Imagine being able to casually detect chemicals in the air with your smartphone or to send a social media update about your breath metabolic profile," said Hiebert, an adjunct professor in the Department of Physics. "Air damping being beneficial overturns half a century of common knowledge in the sensor community and brings us a big step closer to achieving this vision."

Hiebert and his colleagues at the National Research Council of Canada's Nanotechnology Research Centre are also looking for ways to build new mass spectrometers. Currently large and extremely expensive, mass spectrometers are chemical analysis instruments, used to identify the tiniest compounds within a substance, such as a blood sample or a new drug.

"Our goal is to get our mass sensitivity and frequency stability good enough to allow us to see single proton differences in mass," explained Hiebert. "Then we can have a mass spec that works at atmospheric pressure, that could fit in the palm of your hand."

This research was conducted by Hiebert and his team, including graduate students Swapan Roy and Jocelyn Bachman, and postdoctoral fellows Vince Sauer and Anandram Venkatasubramanian. The paper, "Improving mechanical sensor performance through larger damping" is published in Science (doi: 10.1126/science.aar5220).