Intelligent Nanotechnology for Environmental Monitoring

Pollution and contamination aren't always as obvious as a burning river or a massive algal bloom. In fact, pathogen and heavy metal contamination can be difficult to detect—even with today's most modern technology.

Jian-Ping Wang, an electrical and computer engineering professor and Institute on the Environment fellow, is working to change that. Wang discussed his research using spintronic and nano magnetic technologies at his recent Frontiers in the Environment lecture, "Intelligent Nanotechnology for Environmental Monitoring."  (View a recording of the lecture.)

Wang's research utilized detection technologies from the medical field to improve current technologies used to detect heavy metal and pathogen contamination. 

"The thing I try to promote through the past few years through my research is that I want to figure out if there's a way we can help from an engineering aspect," Wang said.

"So I worked on the magnetic sensings for the different biomarkers and different molecular detections and then initially, I start from existing detections: cancers, HPV, HIV, those different detections. Then, step by step, I found out that those technologies can be used for environmental monitoring."

Wang used the example of mercury detection technologies to highlight the need for his research. Given its toxicity, mercury standards in surface and drinking water are extremely low. Current technologies for mercury detection are either clunky and inconvenient or include large errors.

"The goal is to have a portable device to go to any place - like the lakes - and then the people right away can collect the information and plot a chart and then transfer it to the Internet and data centers," he said. "You can collect all the data put together and then try to analyze the changes you have or where you need to pay attention."

The new technology "intelligent environmental monitoring" uses a unique feature of electrons to improve detection. 

"Basically you have electrons, and electrons have one feature that we've used for 50 years and that is charge," Wang said. "That's how we have cell phones, that's how we have everything here. We just manipulate the charge. And everything was built up on top of that - a billion-dollar market. 

"But we forgot another feature of electrons and that's a spin," said Wang, who is also the director of the National Center for Spintronic Materials, Interfaces, and Novel Architectures (C-SPIN). "Electrons carry a spin, and we hadn't used that. So my research is based on that. You start with one and now you have two features. You really open the door to make things you could not make before."

Intelligent environmental monitoring isn't being used in any country just yet, but Wang is optimistic that the United States can lead the effort. And while there are always bugs to work out, Wang is confident that collaborations with other researchers can fill in the knowledge gaps. 

"Through all the research in the recent couple of years, I've figured out that this is an open field," he said. "Every time I talk to people and I'm not familiar with their research, very soon we can come up with an idea together."