TAMPA — It can take up to five days after being exposed to COVID-19 before one tests positive for the virus.
But what if the virus could be detected indoors, circulating in the air before people get infected?
University of South Florida electrical engineers believe they are on track to build such a device, one that can detect the presence of the COVID virus in the air — or even when an infected person exhales. They believe such a device could save lives by preventing the spread of a virus that can currently only be detected as it infects people.
Known as the Electrochemical-Nose — or the Echem-Nose — the device is being developed at the university’s Department of Electrical Engineering. Potential uses include sounding an alert when the virus is detected in crowded indoor spaces, or as a quick way to screen passengers boarding an aircraft.
As its name suggests, the Echem-Nose is loosely modeled on the human nose, which detects and identifies odors through the presence of chemicals in gases that come into contact with its thin mucus lining.
The device uses a photovoltaic sensor, which can detect the signature of chemical elements in the air. But in an unusual marriage of chemistry, engineering and bio-molecular engineering, the sensor is covered with biomaterial — in this case a thin, artificial layer of mucus that will contain copies of the COVID antibody protein, said Arash Takshi, an associate professor of electrical engineering.
When airborne pathogens such as COVID particles pass over the sensor, he said, the mucus should trap them, giving the antibodies time to lock onto the particles and identify the virus.
“The olfactory system is very advanced in the human body, but it has been largely ignored compared to the other senses, at least by engineers,” Takshi said. “We’re trying to push the boundaries further.”
The approach has some precedent. For example, studies have shown that electrochemical sensors can identify ammonia, a symptom of chronic kidney disease, in the breath of patients.
But to capture and identify the COVID virus, which quickly perishes on dry surfaces, the Echem-Nose requires its sensor — roughly the width of a sewing needle — be covered with a liquid.
Takshi, 50, and his team have already advanced their proof of concept by showing the sensors can work in conjunction with a layer of mucus. The bio material comes from a special supplier and costs as much as $500 for a few millimeters.
Doctoral student Mohammad Hossain, 30, and Takshi on Wednesday demonstrated for Tampa Bay Times journalists how the sensor system can detect the presence of chemicals in the air. Testing is conducted in a bio-organic electronics lab on the USF campus, home to a bewildering array of tubes and pipes covered in aluminum foil.
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During testing, the pair place sensors inside an airtight container connected to a series of tubes. When different gases are introduced to the device, the sensor relays the different compound signatures it finds to a computer. The process, known as selectivity, teaches the sensor system which chemicals it is likely to routinely encounter.
Sensors are also placed in a solar simulator, a box that can mimic sunlight, to ensure the sensor can work in different environmental conditions.
The project received financial backing from the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay in February with an award of $28,000 toward Hossain’s salary as a researcher. The award is part of more than $4.5 million that the foundation has given to local groups working to alleviate the effects of the pandemic through feeding programs and by providing personal protective equipment, said Jesse Coraggio, the foundation’s vice president of community impact.
While the award to the Echem-nose project is modest, the project has sparked keen interest.
“What really got us excited about this project was this one felt a little more on the proactive side,” Coraggio said. “This was an opportunity to award a strategic grant to develop something that will help in the future and make a difference with the struggles we’re all going through.”
Takshi said it will take a while to finish the rigorous testing needed to prove the Echem-Nose will work. The next stage of the project will be attempting to detect a muted or non-active copy of the virus. That testing will need to be done in a specialized containment lab and will be subject to strict university rules on use of a virus.
Once a prototype has proven successful, Takshi said he will seek grants to expand the project and fully develop the device.
Other potential uses for the Echem-Nose include augmenting the sensors in air-conditioning systems to detect COVID, or configured into a portable detection device that can be carried around, Takshi said. The device could also be adapted to detect different viruses and variants, so long as scientists have found the antibody.
Said Takshi: “I hope we can develop something that not only encourages more people to reach for support but means we can have a safer community and a scientifically inspired community.”
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