KENT — Two Kent State University professors are on their way to advancing safety measures for first-responders, military personnel and chemical manufacturing workers.

Torsten Hegmann, associate director of the Advanced Materials and Liquid Crystal Institute, and Elda Hegmann, assistant professor of the institute and the Department of Biological Sciences, received a three-year, $330,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to continue their work studying liquid crystal-nanoparticle sensors that detect toxic gases and vapors without the use of electricity.

The sensors, the prototypes for which are about 1-inch squares, appear black until a toxic gas in the air reacts with the surface, revealing a skull and crossbones. Each sensor is specific to a particular toxic gas, such as phosgene, a chemical that shows up in home fires whenever there is an air conditioning unit.

In completing their research, the Hegmanns are using “reverse engineering,” identifying a toxic gas they want to address and then finding a chemical reaction involving that gas that will initiate a realignment of liquid crystal molecules. They are working on developing these reactions for five particularly relevant gases.

While any image or text could appear, the Hegmanns were adamant that the sensor not use color, as 10 percent of males in North America and Europe have some form of color blindness.

“So if your life depends on reading a sensor in a situation where you’re already under stress and you know you’re some sort of color blind, that’s not a good sensor. Our devices don’t require you to recognize color. There’s either light going through it, or there’s no light going through it. Color doesn’t matter,” Torsten Hegmann explained.

The Hegmanns envision the sensors being mounted on a firefighter’s visor, so that the firefighter could easily see whether a toxic gas is present in the area and make an informed decision about removing their helmet. They consulted with firefighters in Germany and the U.S., including those in the Kent Fire Department.

Kent Fire Chief John Tosko said the sensors also could help firefighters’ overall health and would improve fire department’s decontamination procedures.

“After they’ve pulled out of the fire, if the sensor indicates they’ve been exposed to certain types of chemicals, we would take different types of decontamination procedures. We would be cleaning and taking care of the equipment better, and then firefighters can document when he’s been exposed to this chemical,” Tosko said.

He explained that fire departments currently have sensors that can detect certain toxic gases, but they are large devices that must be carried in to the fire individually.

With the Hegmanns’ sensors, “it’s already attached to their turnout gear and they can have it on them all the time, and we could look at it as soon as they come out of the fire,” Tosko said.

The Hegmanns are collaborating with Merck Performance Materials, a German company not affiliated with Merck Pharmaceuticals. The relationship was formed after their group won Merck’s international Displaying Futures award, which provides resources and materials. Merck was initially interested more in the environmental applications of the research, rather than the medical applications.

When they visited the Kent Fire Department however, one of the firefighters asked if there were medical applications, noting that his son who is diabetic is young and hates being prodded with needles.

“He said, ‘Couldn’t you make these sensors to detect something for people with diabetes?’ I told him I think we can, and his response was really heartfelt in saying, ‘I would love you and so would my son.’ So this got us back thinking that there are various disease states where the chemical formulation of your breath is changing and it’s enriched with certain vapors or gases we exhale and that’s part of why we’re moving in this direction,” Torsten Hegmann said.

 

Reporter Krista S. Kano can be reached at 330-541-9416 or kkano@recordpub.com.