This Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I project will develop new sensor materials for detection of trace mercury in water systems, based on a patent-pending technique licensed by MetalloSensors. This technique at its current stage provides both high sensitivity (with detection limit as low as in sub ppb) and selectivity (against other common coexisting metal ions), demonstrating promise for future development into portable, easy-to-use devices for onsite water monitoring of mercury. It is the goal of this Phase I project to develop the new generation of sensor molecules that are suited for water assays, while still maintaining the unique sensing features as achieved for the current version of sensors. These new molecules will be incorporated into a prototype detecting device through a series of tests and optimization.
The broader/commercial impacts of this research are two-fold: first, it will help MetalloSensors verify the technical feasibility of manufacturing cheap, portable, easy-to-use, but accurate fluorescence-based detectors, suitable for expedient mercury monitoring in water environments; second, the innovative products of MetalloSensors will offer strong market competition over the traditional bench-top instruments, which are usually expensive and complicated to operate. A substantial, sustainable market exists for the innovative mercury detectors as evidenced by the increasing need of water analysis and global concern of mercury pollution. The current US market size for mercury detection was estimated as $0.25B/year, while in China the market size can be as large as $1.5B/year, and this figure is expected to grow significantly in the future.
Mercury is extremely toxic and causes serious health problems. Atmospheric release of mercury from burning fossil fuels, manufacturing, petroleum processing, and gold production result in environmental pollution. Mercury is present in oceans, lakes, rivers, ground water, sediments, and soils, and can bio-accumulate from prey to predator, resulting in high mercury levels in human foods. Increasing regulatory requirements worldwide for mercury monitoring have created a market for faster, cheaper, easier detection methods. Based on patented chemical sensor technology licensed from the University of Utah, Metallosensors, Inc. developed new water-soluble fluorescent sensor molecules suitable for use in measuring mercury in water. Several of the sensor molecules showed high sensitivity and high selectivity for detection mercury ions in water. The mercury detection limit is below 0.4 ppb, much lower than the safety level (2 ppb) set for drinking water by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). We also demonstrated the feasibility of incorporating the sensor material into a portable, easy-to-use fluorimeter device for the real-time determination of mercury concentration at field sites. In addition, the support of the NSF SBIR Phase I/IB awards enabled Metallosensors to file five new patent applications to protect the new chemistry, new kits for detection, and new uses of the kits for mercury detection in industrial, environmental, and personal water supplies. Intellectual merit: This project advanced the success of our unique water soluble sensors and handheld fluorimeter into an integrated detector system. Metallosensors created a prototype of its QuikChek-Hg™ Mercury Detector System, which enables real-time, direct measurement of mercury in water samples over a wide range of acidity (pH 5-9) and ionic strength. No storage or shipping of samples is involved, greatly simplifying and reducing the cost of monitoring. Importantly, the Metallosensors QuikChek-Hg™ allows for the first time real-time mapping of mercury ion flux in remote locations by monitoring in three dimensions at different time points. Broader impacts: The QuikChek-Hg™ Mercury Detector System is easier-to-use, cheaper, truly portable and field-use-sturdy, in contrast to conventional benchtop instrumentation. We are securing robust intellectual property protection for the chemistry and detection system components, and develop marketing and sales channels for worldwide use by governmental, academic, and industrial customers. Metallosensors accesses a rapidly growing worldwide market for detection, monitoring and remediation of mercury contamination.