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New Breathalyzer Offers Hope of Pain-Free Diabetes Monitoring

July 8, 2013 - 9:41am

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New Breathalyzer Offers Hope of Pain-Free Diabetes Monitoring

Researchers at the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) have teamed up with their Regional University Alliance (NETL-RUA) colleagues to develop a new hybrid nanostructure that could make it easier to monitor blood sugar.

When used as a sensing tool in a breath analyzer, the new material could offer a way for millions of diabetics to avoid the pain and hassle of finger sticks. 

How will it work?  By detecting acetone.  Everyone produces a certain level of acetone through normal, daily metabolic processes.  But diabetics produce it in larger amounts and also exhale it at a higher rate than non-diabetics, which is what produces the “fruity” aroma present when glucose levels are low.

NETL-RUA researchers bolstered titanium dioxide—the same ingredient found in most sunscreens—with carbon nanotubes and discovered that they could produce a hybrid material with ultrahigh sensitivity to acetone vapors. 

In short, the novel NETL-RUA nanomaterial is providing the basis for a sensory tool that electronically detects acetone vapor.

3-D model of acetone vapor
 

Here’s how it works.  Carbon nanotubes are highly conductive.  Titanium dioxide is highly refractive and highly absorbent to UV rays. When the two components are combined, the resulting hybrid nanostructure exhibits unique behavior in response to UV illumination and subsequent exposure to acetone.  Light activates the sensor to produce an electrical charge, and the nanomaterial is exposed to UV light to measure acetone vapors.

Sensor technology based on carbon nanotubes offers additional convenient features: small size, low cost, and minimal power consumption.

The NETL-RUA team — Alexander Star, principal investigator and an associate professor of chemistry at University of Pittsburgh; Dan Sorescu, a research physicist at NETL; and Mengning Ding, a Pitt graduate student in chemistry — are now developing a prototype sensor.  Successful tests on human breath samples could mean a game-changing medical technology is on the way. 

And for millions of diabetics, that means life may get a little easier.

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