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Monitoring heavy metal contaminants-such as lead, mercury and cadmium-in rivers and wells requires multiple trips to the lab for analysis with expensive and bulky equipment. A team of chemists headed by Joseph T. Hupp at Northwestern University has a more efficient method that could be adapted to make a portable device for testing samples in the field. Hupp’s group starts with nanoscale-sized particles of gold, each smaller than a virus. They then coat the particles with molecules that are able to bind with the heavy metals. Water containing the particles naturally assumes a deep shade of red. But if, for example, lead ions are present, they attach to the receptors, causing the gold particles to aggregate and turn the water blue. The greater the lead concentration, the more dramatic the color change. Then, to determine the exact quantity of heavy metal in the water, the Northwestern researchers measure its absorption of ultraviolet light. While not as sensitive as standard tests, the nano method’s speed and low cost make it an attractive alternative.

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