As a first year student, Steven Bell switched from Medicine to Chemistry. That change in direction didn't mean retreating into a laboratory. His first spin-out company was acquired by PerkinElmer and he could soon be involved in forming a second one.
Centuries ago, artisans mixed molten glass with nanoparticles of gold to create the distinctive rich ruby tones of medieval stained glass.
Today, Steven and his collaborators in the School of Pharmacy have discovered a novel way of chemically modifying the surface of the tiny particles, potentially creating the platform for a powerful new weapon in the fight against terrorism, drug abuse and pollution.
The approach has recently been proven to work in real life situations to detect tiny traces of ecstasy within seconds of testing. The quantities involved are so small that previously they could only have been discovered through timeconsuming laboratory analysis.
Steven says, "The new method involves the use of a handheld Raman spectrometer to shine a laser beam onto a small quantity of a suspect sample. The instrument then measures the energy of the scattered light to determine the presence of specific chemical compounds.
"Up to now, this type of device has not been sensitive enough to detect low concentrations of chemicals in small samples. "Through the EPSRC project, however, we have discovered that by chemically modifying nanoparticles of gold and silver, we can make them attach themselves to the specific molecules we wish to target. When this happens, the metal acts as an antenna and amplifies the laser scattering signals by a factor of at least one million. This allows even the smallest traces of specific chemical compounds to be detected and means that better, faster decisions can be made in response to the results produced."
Steven's team is now working to develop special gel pads to swipe an individual or crime scene for instant analysis. These pads will contain the nanoparticles held in a gel-like polymer with a protective cover which can be peeled back to expose them before use.
"We are also continuing our research into extending the range of chemicals the technique can be used to detect. This is being done in co-operation with the project partner, Forensic Science Northern Ireland whose world-leading expertise has been critical to the success of our work to date. "The research clearly has enormous commercial potential and we are currently considering whether to license the technology or create a spin out company."
As the founder of a Queen's University spin-out company recently acquired by PerkinElmer, Steven is enthusiastic about the entrepreneurial aspect of his work. He believes its impact on the wider world vindicates his decision as a first year Queen's medical student to switch to chemistry.
"As a fresher, I quickly discovered that at heart I was a pure scientist but swapping career paths didn't mean retreating back into the lab. If anything, it has given me much greater scope to contribute to the welfare of society than I probably would have had as a medical practitioner."
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