14 April 2021

New sensors research to benefit healthcare and the environment

Professor Heffernan from the University of Sheffield is co-investigator of MISSION, an EPSRC funded collaboration between Universities of Southampton, Sheffield and York, the University Hospital Southampton and the National Oceanography Centre.

Graphic of low cost sensor technology for measuring drug concentrations

A team of photonics engineers, healthcare clinicians and oceanographers are set to lead an ambitious project to develop the next generation of photonics technology that will enable rapid diagnostic medical screening and environmental monitoring.

Silicon photonics has transformed data communications technology thanks to its low cost and high performance. This new research project, MISSION, will aim to bring the benefits of this technology to a range of new applications that could be manufactured at a mass scale to solve societal challenges and transform peoples’ lives. Currently silicon photonics applications operate in the near-infrared wavelength range (1.2 μm – 1.6 μm). Key to this project will be the development of chip-scale sensors in the mid-infrared wavelengths (3-15μm); this is known as the “fingerprint region” as it enables sensors to spot unique identifiers in biological and chemical molecules.

The collaboration, which brings together research leaders from the Universities of Southampton, Sheffield and York, the University Hospital Southampton and the National Oceanography Centre, has been awarded a £5.8 million grant by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.  The team will produce novel fundamental components, such as Mid Infrared (MIR) waveguide technology (Southampton, York), light sources (Sheffield), detectors (York, Southampton, Sheffield), as well implementing the key optical sensing technologies on-chip (NOC, York, Southampton), and packaging and electronic read-out (NOC). Led by the clinical (Southampton Hospital) and environmental experts (NOC), and after consultation with key end users of the technology – including the NHS and industry partners - the team will focus on three key research demonstrators:

  1. Liquid biopsy for faster cancer detection

Biopsies often require tissue samples to be sent away for costly laboratory analysis. The vision for the project is the development ubiquitous sensors to detect the proteins that indicate certain forms of cancers via patients’ blood. without the need for hospital stays. 

  1. Monitoring of therapeutic drug levels 

Deployment of low cost sensing devices in homes or in GP surgeries to measure the concentration of certain drugs would lead to better treatment and outcomes for patients, and reduce outpatient appointments in NHS hospitals. 

  1. Measuring greenhouse gas emissions from the oceans 

Today, monitoring of gas (such as carbon dioxide) exchange between the atmosphere and the oceans requires large fragile systems on ships with high carbon footprints. Wide deployment of  miniaturised sensing technology will transform measurement of the impact of climate change mitigation strategies.    

The team will utilise their world leading expertise in photonics, medicine, electronics, sensing and packaging in order to extend the technical capability of silicon photonics to mid-infrared wavelengths for these and other sensing applications. 

Professor Graham Reed, Head of the Silicon Photonics Research Group at the University of Southampton and Principal Investigator for the project said: “I’m delighted that the EPSRC has chosen to trust us with this important technology development work.  We have put together an exceptional multidisciplinary team that I am confident can collectively make huge progress towards better lives for people around the world”.

Professor Saul Faust, Professor of Paediatric Immunology & Infectious Diseases at the University of Southampton and Director of the Southampton NIHR Clinical Research Facility, said “Quite often technologies are invented and it then takes time to work out how to use them in the real world. This award gives clinicians the opportunity to work with Prof Reed and colleagues right from the start to bring new devices to the NHS much more quickly than has been possible in the past”.

Professor Jon Heffernan, Director of the National Epitaxy Facility at the University of Sheffield commented, “I’m delighted to be a co-investigator on this pioneering project. In Sheffield, we will be developing a whole new generation of efficient and integrated mid-infrared lasers, LEDs and detectors, building on our world leading expertise in semiconductor epitaxy.  The project will have a transformative impact on many different fields in medical and environmental sensing and will put the UK at the forefront of this burgeoning field”.

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