A portable device capable of detecting toxic or harmful substances in water has been developed by the researchers at Brigham Young University (BYU). The device, called a nanoflow liquid chromatograph, pumps a liquid sample through a capillary and into a detector and identifies what chemicals and elements are present. Although liquid chromatography has been around for decades, the new design is little more than a foot in length, can run on battery power, and is a hundred times more sensitive than other laboratory devices. Traditional systems are typically limited to laboratories due to size and power requirements. Developed by a chemistry team led by Professor Milton Lee, the device will be licensed from Brigham Young University and produced by Tranxend LC, a new Utah start-up company.

The team initially designed the device for its portability, allowing on-the-spot testing of numerous chemicals that are in liquids like water, blood, and urine, or that can be dissolved in a liquid. The list of its many applications includes environmental monitoring of water quality, drug testing, and arson investigations. This little system allows clinics to test blood and urine samples without having to send the samples to a lab out of state.

One of Lee’s past products, a complementary device that identifies harmful chemicals in the air, was licensed to Torion Technologies Inc. for use by soldiers in the field, for example, to detect chemical and biological agents in terrorist attacks. It’s also used in air pollution monitoring, food quality testing, and drug testing.

Not only is the new liquid chromatograph the smallest of its kind, but it has also been proven to be consistently reliable. The research and design of the new device is a collaborative effort involving both chemists and statisticians from BYU. Fellow chemistry professor Paul Farnsworth and statistics professor Dennis Tolley served as co-authors of the study. The lead author of the study, Ph.D. student Sonika Sharma, spent three years working on the system as part of her dissertation.