Project Spotlight: Norovirus Sensor (update)

We first learned about the Norovirus Sensor Project in 2020. The research team was combining various classes of materials with deep learning approaches to develop sensitive and specific sensors for norovirus detection. Their unique approach allows them to investigate applications of highly energy-efficient, environmentally benign, and scalable materials in the production of such sensors. We caught up with one of the team’s leaders, B. Reeja Jayan, to learn about how the project has progressed since we last connected.

Can you please provide a brief refresher on your project and its goals?

In face of the recent pandemic, preventing contamination and transmission of pathogens that can transmit rapidly through surface contact in an intelligent and interactive manner is a major challenge in the health industry. We need smart, rapid, scalable surface level evaluation methodologies to mitigate this issue. Thus, we plan to combine robotics and controls with materials engineering and data analytics to create a mobile robot that can rapidly sense infectious environments and report the presence of rare pathogens (e.g., coronavirus, norovirus, etc.). To achieve this goal, we plan to develop a soft robot that is covered with a gecko-inspired “smart” material sheath for surface navigation and pathogen collection.

What has been the most exciting or unexpected that you learned during the project?

The project is still in the early stages, so everything is a learning opportunity. I have had to chance to meet and speak with many researchers who are working in creating nanostructures for various sensing applications. Just learning about their work, how they make these nanostructures, and what inspired them is very exciting and motivating for me as that gives me ideas for my own project! I am also working on an experiment to measure the amount of microparticles that my robot can pick up to figure out the factors that influence the number of particles collected. Once these factors are identified, I will be modifying the surface of the robot based on my conversations with the various researchers I met to further improve the robot’s ability to collect more micro, and eventually, nanoscaled particles.

Have you encountered any roadblocks that you did not anticipate?

Scalability is a big roadblock at the moment. I realized after reading various scientific articles that things work very differently at microscale as compared to macroscale. Even an order of magnitude can create a huge difference! Forces that can be neglected at macroscale become dominant at micro or nanoscale and figuring out how to leverage this effect is a challenge that I am currently working on.

What are your project’s next steps?

My project’s next steps are to create the gecko-inspired nanostructures and test if they are effective in collecting nanosized particles (~30-60nm), comparable to the size of the viruses of interest (coronavirus, norovirus, etc.)

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