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This nano liquid chromatography is the smallest of its kind
Photo by Mark Philbrick

A team of researchers at BYU have designed a portable device capable of detecting toxic or harmful substances in water.

The device, called a nanoflow liquid chromatograph, pumps a liquid sample through a capillary and into a detector and identifies what chemicals and elements are present. 

Although liquid chromatography has been around for decades, the new design is little more than a foot in length, can run on battery power, and is a hundred times more sensitive than other laboratory devices. Traditional systems are typically limited to laboratories due to size and power requirements.

Developed by a chemistry team led by Professor Milton Lee, the device will be licensed from Brigham Young University and produced by Tranxend LC, a new Utah start-up company.

Lee’s team initially designed the device for its portability, allowing on-the-spot testing of numerous chemicals that are in liquids like water, blood and urine, or that can be dissolved in a liquid. The list of its many applications includes environmental monitoring of water quality, drug testing, and arson investigations. 

“You don’t have to wait to get results when you really need to know right then,” said Lee, senior developer. “This little system allows clinics to test blood and urine samples without having to send the samples to a lab out of state.” 

Dr. Milton Lee mentors student Sonika Sharma as she works with the nano liquid chromatograph
Photo by Mark Philbrick

One of Lee’s past products, a complementary device that identifies harmful chemicals in the air, was licensed to Torion Technologies Inc. for use by soldiers in the field, for example, to detect chemical and biological agents in terrorist attacks. It’s also used in air pollution monitoring, food quality testing, and drug testing..   

Not only is the new liquid chromatograph the smallest of its kind, it has also been proven to be consistently reliable.

The research and design of the new device, published in Analytical Chemistry, was a collaborative effort involving both chemists and statisticians from BYU. Fellow chemistry professor Paul Farnsworth and statistics professor Dennis Tolley served as co-authors of the study.

Dr. Paul Farnsworth checks the readings from the nano liquid chromatograph
Photo by Mark Philbrick

The lead author of the study, PhD student Sonika Sharma, spent three years working on the system as part of her dissertation. She said the mentoring and hands-on experience she received while building the device was integral in landing a job offer in Boston prior to her December graduation.

“Not only do we teach graduate students like Sonika, but our undergraduate students also benefit from our research,” said Farnsworth. “I take examples of what we’ve been doing in the lab and incorporate it into my lectures.”