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Industrial Analytical Instrumentation

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MIT's 'liquid fingerprinting' identifies unknown liquids immediately

Harvard University has invented a sensing technology that instantly characterizes the chemical make-up and material properties of unknown liquids. The Harvard-founded company Validere has begun a licensing agreement with the school's scientists and engineers to pursue commercial applications in quality assurance and liquid identification. Validere will then adapt the new technology, Watermark Ink (W-INK), into a pocket-sized device that can be used by first responders to quickly identify chemical spills. Harvard's identification method is unique in that it's cheap, instantaneous, and portable.

W-INK exploits chemical and optical properties of nanostructured materials to distinguish liquids by their surface tension. The detector changes color upon contact with a liquid that has a particular surface tension. "We first developed the technology from basic research in my lab at [Harvard John a. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS)]," said Joanna Aizenberg, the Amy Smith Berylson Professor of Materials Science at SEAS. "The Harvard Office of Technology Development (OTD) guided and supported our commercialization strategy through its Physical Sciences and Engineering Accelerator. Out of this virtuous cycle of innovation Validere was spun off with a viable commercial product."

The benefits of the device include a simplification of the data that normally requires a technician for interpreting. "Many people focus on making hardware smaller, but miniaturization often turns out to be the easy part," said Ian Burgess, co-founder, CEO and CTO of Validere. "Anyone in the field can immediately know, on the spot, how to respond to a sampled liquid."

In January 2016, researchers reported improvements that make a colorimetric test possible for determining liquids' volatility. Such findings are of high value to the Department of Transportation, having an interest in profiling the volatility of the railroad-transported crude oil. The W-INK innovation means that decisions about how to properly store oil for transport can be made upon extraction in the field, preventing accidental explosions.

Aizenberg's lab specializes in reverse-engineering nature, combining biological mechanisms into W-INK so it works as a responder to liquid infiltration into chemically modified porous structures. Now small enough to fit in the palm of the hand and function without a power source, the device is still in need of optimized sensing capabilities. While Aizenberg leads that optimization research, Burgess is leading Validere's development of software and an interface device meant to change visual test results into recommended actions for treating identified liquids. The system will also pair with disposable strips to create customizable field test kits that adapt to identify any liquid or liquid mixture.

"The goal is to remove the element of human error from the identification and categorization of unknown liquids," said Burgess.

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