microscopic sensor
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‘Game Changing’ Microscopic Sensor 500k Times Smaller Than a Human Hair is the Size of a Single Molecule

Researchers have developed a microscopic sensor the size of a single molecule that they are describing as a potential game changer with a range of potential technological applications.

About 500,000 times smaller than the width of a single strand of human hair, the revolutionary sensor could radically impact the precision and performance of personal electronic devices, aviation systems, and even systems used in space travel.

Piezoresistors Are Already All Around Us

When your cell phone magically counts your steps while you jog, or your car’s airbag is able to deploy with split-second precision, it is tapping into the power of piezoresistors. In fact, engineers use this type of pint-sized sensor, which transforms pressure or force into an electronic signal, in applications ranging from aviation control systems to life support systems used in space travel.

Still, even wider use of these types of sensors is limited by their size, much like many electronic applications. Now, an international team of researchers says they have developed a highly accurate, high-performing piezoresistor that is as small as a single molecule. And based on the initial testing, their microscopic sensor has seemingly limitless applications across a number of industries.

Microscopic Sensor Can Fit Almost Anywhere

To design and build their new microscopic sensor, the researchers say they used a single bullvalene molecule. That’s because when this type of molecule is mechanically strained, it reacts to form a whole new type of molecule. The newly formed molecule is a completely different shape from the original, which alters electrical flow by changing resistance.

“The different chemical forms are known as isomers, and this is the first time that reactions between them have been used to develop piezoresistors,” said Dr. Thomas Fallon, a researcher from the University of Newcastle and one of the co-authors of the research describing the sensor’s development.

Another co-author, Professor Jeffrey Reimers from the University of Technology Sydney, said building this type of single-molecule piezoresistor and detecting shapes from their electrical conductance “is a whole new concept of chemical sensing.” In fact, their device is so reactive the researchers say it can detect the change in the shape of a reacting molecule back and forth about once every millisecond.

Single Molecule-Sized Microscopic Sensor Could Impact Entire Industries

Dr Nadim Darwish from Curtin University. says their new microscopic sensor is “molecular-based,” so it can be used to detect things like chemicals or even biomolecules like proteins and enzymes. It could also be “game-changing for detecting diseases,” he adds.

Published in the journal Nature Communications, the design and development of this particular microscopic sensor may eventually lead to the development of a whole new class of microscopic sensors using this basic technology.

“This new capability is critical to the future development of all molecular electronics devices,” said Associate Professor Daniel Kosov from James Cook University, another of the study’s co-authors.

The same sentiment was echoed by Darwish, who noted that “because of its size and chemical nature, this new type of piezoresistor will open up a whole new realm of opportunities for chemical and biosensors, human-machine interfaces, and health monitoring devices.”

Christopher Plain is a Science Fiction and Fantasy novelist and Head Science Writer at The Debrief. Follow and connect with him on X, learn about his books at plainfiction.com, or email him directly at christopher@thedebrief.org.