Chemical nose could remove environmental pollutants

05 March 2019

A new project with scientists from across five European countries will develop next-generation chemical noses that can remove pollutants from the environment.
Cassie Sims

Cartoon rendering of a chemical nose. Image: Riina Aav

Scientists from across Europe have been allocated €2.9m for a Horizon 2020 project with the aim of tackling environmental pollution problems. The team consists of researchers from five countries, including experts from Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) in Estonia.

The project will focus on supramolecular chemistry, using new receptor-molecules to detect pesticides and other industrial pollutants. The receptors work as an ‘electronic nose’, sending a signal when compounds bind with them.

The technology could be used to detect pollutants. Currently, the chirality – when some chemicals exists in two non-superimposable forms – of these pollutants makes it difficult to analyse traditionally.

‘Dealing with pollutants in the environment is becoming an ever-increasing problem. One relatively unknown reason for this is that many agricultural pesticides and pharmaceutical drugs that enter the environment are 'chiral', which means they exist in two non-superimposable forms (like left and right hands), ’ says Professor Riina Aav, head of the supramolecular chemistry research group at the TalTech. ‘This molecular quirk makes it difficult for the pollution control technologies to identify and remove many of these pollutants and this cannot be achieved by traditional methods for analysis.’

The collaborative project will focus on building the receptor-molecules and encapsulating them in container molecules, which the Estonian team has recently developed.

‘Our research group will build the receptor-molecules for these chemical noses. We will make container molecules, the 'hemicucurbiturils', which were recently developed in the project funded by Estonian Research Council. Our researchers will also build chiral molecular systems with recognition and signalling functions to flag the presence of specific pollutants, for example through changing colour,’ Professor Aav adds.

The scientists hope that the project will develop more effective technology to detect pollutants, which can hopefully lead to their capture and removal before they are released into the environment.

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