Billions of smartphones and tablets worldwide could be used to sense toxins in water and soil by way of the touchscreen technology used in everyday practice without any modifications. The report was published in the journal Sensors and Actuators B.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge have successfully shown how a regular touchscreen can identify contaminants by dropping liquid samples on the screen. Since touchscreen sensitivity is comparable to lab-based equipment, it can be used in unsterilized environments.
For now, this novel accomplishment is a proof of concept, but it can be expanded for various applications such as biosensing or medical diagnostics. Smartphones interpret electrical fields when a finger disrupts the electrical field running through a touchscreen.
Dr. Ronan Daly from Cambridge’s Institute of Manufacturing, who co-led the research, said, “We wanted to know if we could interact with the technology in a different way, without having to fundamentally change the screen. Instead of interpreting a signal from your finger, what if we could get a touchscreen to read electrolytes, since these ions also interact with the electric fields?”
During trials, researchers pipetted several liquids onto smartphone screens. Depending on the concentration of ions and their charge, the measurements were recorded from each droplet.
The new technology could be used to detect arsenic contamination in drinking water. Arsenic is a common contaminant found in groundwater but is filtered out by most municipal water systems. Arsenic water contamination is a substantial problem in parts of the world without water treatment.
“In theory, you could add a drop of water to your phone before you drink it, in order to check that it’s safe. For example, if we could get the sensitivity to a point where the touchscreen could detect heavy metals, it could be used to test for things like lead in drinking water. We also hope in the future to deliver sensors for home health monitoring,” said Daly.
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