Ca' Foscari researchers invent sensor that can detect PFAS

The research team (photo courtesy of Andrea Avezzù)

Detecting traces of PFAS with a quick and easily accessible test.
Researchers from the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice have recently patented an electrochemical sensor that can measure the concentration of perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS), one of the most common and dangerous molecules in the PFAS family.

The health repercussions caused by the buildup of these substances are still under investigation, but early studies have confirmed their toxicity.
Perfluorinated compounds are very resistant to deterioration and they present hydro repellent and fireproof properties. For these reasons, they are often used in industrial manufacturing, for example in the production of waterproof and stain resistant fabrics.    

PFAS are currently considered as dangerous emerging pollutants on a global scale, as they are extremely persistent in the environment and can accumulate in living organisms, humans included. They have recently made the headlines in Italy, causing no little concern, particularly after the discovery of contaminated groundwater in the Veneto region, in northeastern Italy.

Regarding the concentration of PFOS in water meant for human consumption, the Veneto region has established a threshold of 30 nanograms/liter, a level the sensor is able to detect.
“To this day, the concentration of PFOS can only be measured through expensive lab tests - explains Paolo Ugo, Ca’ Foscari Professor of Analytical Chemistry and supervisor of the research team - while our sensor can give feedback in real time, right on the spot and at a fraction of the cost. This can prove very useful, for example to conduct further analysis only in the more polluted sites”.

The sensor employs Molecularly Imprinted Polymers, a sort of ad-hoc “net” whose holes coincide with the molecules that need to be detected - this way, the polymer can trap any complementary molecule. Since the configuration of the PFOS is already known, the sensor can recognize it and measure its concentration.

The invention comes from the collaborative effort of the research team supervised by Professor Paolo Ugo, made up of Professor Ligia Maria Moretto, researcher Angela Maria Stortini and researcher Najmeh Karimian, who arrived at the Ca’ Foscari Department of Molecular Sciences and Nanosystems from Iran in 2016, to carry out the research that made the creation of this sensor possible and then presented it to the international scientific community with an article in the prestigious ‘Sensors’ Journal of the American Chemical Society.

The patent is now ready for a second step before it can reach potential buyers, such as private households and water supply companies. An industrial investment will allow for the actual manufacturing of the device, whose built-in display will make the test results readily and easily accessible. The final product will be very similar to a glucose monitor, commonly used to measure blood sugar levels.