New low-budget nerve agent detector at UT made of Legos, smartphone

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Could something as simple as a box of Legos be used to help detect dangerous nerve agents? University of Texas at Austin researchers think so. 

A paper that came out on Wednesday in “ACS Central Science” describes how using a rig made up of a smartphone and Lego bricks could help first responders and scientists working in the field when nerve agents like VX and sarin are present. 

UT Chemistry professor Eric Anslyn describes these chemical weapons as “dangerous threats to humanity.”

Equipment that did similar testing previously was expensive. UT says it could cost as much as $30,000. 

This new method of sensing the nerve agent uses a smartphone camera to tell differences in color and brightness thanks to software developed by a graduate student. This chemical sensor is used along with photography to find these odorless, tasteless chemicals that can quickly cause severe illness or death. 

And before you worry, the College of Natural Sciences assures us that there are no nerve agents on the UT campus. Instead, the scientists developed the sensor using chemicals that act the way nerve agents do during testing but that are safe to use. 

Anslyn has studied nerve agents for nearly 20 years with these safer chemical compounds. He used them to create compounds that can neutralize chemical weapons and make them visible.

Combining the new nerve sensor with those compounds could allow first responders to see these nerve agents glowing and tell how much is present. 

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