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Ultrasensitive chemical sensors based on nanoparticles have the potential to detect a single molecule of an explosive or other hazardous chemical. But deploying such ultrasensitive detectors outside the lab will require manufacturing methods that are both highly precise and inexpensive. Now researchers at Hewlett-Packard and the University of California at Irvine say they have a process that uses basic semiconductor manufacturing to fabricate arrays of nanoparticles in minutes.

In the new method, described in an upcoming issue of Nano Letters (online), the HP researchers coated nanowires, initially formed by depositing rare-earth metals on a silicon crystal, with platinum. According to one of the researchers, Regina Ragan (formerly with HP and now a professor of chemical engineering at UC Irvine), at some concentrations of platinum, the metal seems to form clumps, leaving parts of the wire uncoated. After the researchers exposed the nanowires to plasma, the uncovered parts of the wires were etched away, leaving tightly spaced platinum nanoparticles each about eight nanometers across. The technique could be easy and inexpensive to scale up because it uses common commercial techniques for deposition and etching, and requires few steps, Ragan says.

The researchers believe the technique can also be used to create gold or silver nanoparticles – a key for single-molecule chemical detection – using a technique called Raman spectroscopy in which light scattered by molecules creates a telltale signature of a particular chemical. “The problem with regular Raman scattering is you need to have a very, very large sample of molecules,” says R. Stanley Williams, senior HP fellow and one of the researchers on the project. But, says William, if the targeted molecule “happens to be located between two silver nanoparticles,” the technique can be extremely sensitive. “You go from having to have a hundred trillion molecules to being able to see a Raman spectrum from only one molecule.”

Indeed, says David Rauh, president of EIC Laboratories, a research and development firm in Norwood, MA, the new fabrication technique could help researchers build sensors for airports and battlefields that can detect a host of different threats, possibly including liquid explosives.

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