Inexpensive Sensor System Improves Detection of Lead, Heavy Metals

The U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has developed a new rapid, portable and inexpensive detection system that identifies personal exposures to toxic lead and other dangerous heavy metals. The device can provide an accurate blood sample measurement from a simple finger prick, which is particularly important when sampling children.

PNNL's portable analyzer system accurately detects lead and other toxic metals in blood as well as in urine and saliva, officials said. Results are as reliable as those of current state-of-the-art mass spectrometry systems many times its size. This new system provides a quicker, simpler and easier method of monitoring toxic metal exposures in high-risk populations, such as industrial workers, children and people living in polluted areas.

A bit larger than a lunchbox, the new detection system is field-deployable with plug-and-play features that allow different sensors to be easily exchanged to detect a variety of heavy metal toxins. The entire system is battery-operated and requires about one and one-half times the power of a typical laptop computer. The system also routinely delivers reliable measurements within a rapid two-to-five minute analysis period.

Early production cost estimates indicate that the device may be as much as 10 times less expensive than existing plasma mass spectrometry systems, which lack field portability and require samples to be returned to the lab for time-consuming and more expensive analysis.

The device can use two classes of sensors for detecting lead and other heavy metals. The first is based on a flow injection system using a mercury-film electrode to analyze metals in blood, urine or saliva samples. To eliminate the use of toxic mercury in conducting the analysis, the second class of the sensor uses a mercury-free approach of nanostructure materials developed at PNNL.

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