Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have successfully used graphene – one of the strongest and thinnest known materials – to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus in laboratory experiments. Researchers say the discovery could be a breakthrough in coronavirus detection, with potential applications in the fight against COVID-19 and its variants.

In experiments, the researchers combined sheets of graphene, which are more than 1,000 times thinner than a postage stamp, with an antibody designed to target the infamous spike protein on the coronavirus. They then measured the atomic-level vibrations of these graphene sheets when exposed to COVID-positive and COVID-negative samples in artificial saliva. These sheets were also tested in the presence of other coronaviruses, such as Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS-CoV.

UIC researchers found that the vibrations of the graphene sheet coupled to antibodies changed when treated with a COVID-positive sample, but not when treated with a COVID-negative sample or with other coronaviruses. The vibrational changes, measured with a device called a Raman spectrometer, were evident in less than five minutes.

Their findings are published in the journal ACS Nano.

“We have been developing graphene sensors for many years. In the past, we have built detectors for cancer cells and ALS. It is hard to imagine a more urgent application than to help stem the spread of the pandemic. current, “said Vikas Berry, professor and director of chemical engineering at UIC College of Engineering and lead author of the article. “Society clearly needs better ways to quickly and accurately detect COVID and its variants, and this research has the potential to make a real difference. The modified sensor is very sensitive and selective for COVID, and it is fast and inexpensive. . “

“This project was a surprisingly new response to the need and demand for virus detection, quickly and accurately,” said study co-author Garrett Lindemann, researcher at Carbon Advanced Materials and Products, or CAMP. “The development of this technology as a clinical test device has many advantages over the tests currently deployed and in use.”

Berry says graphene – which has been called a “wonderful material” – has unique properties that make it very versatile, making this type of sensor possible.

Graphene is a single atom thick material made up of carbon. Carbon atoms are bonded by chemical bonds, the elasticity and movement of which can produce resonant vibrations, also known as phonons, which can be measured very precisely. When a molecule like a SARS-CoV-2 molecule interacts with graphene, it changes these resonant vibrations in a very specific and quantifiable way.

“Graphene is only one atom thick, so a molecule on its surface is relatively huge and can produce a specific change in its electronic energy,” Berry said. “In this experiment, we modified the graphene with an antibody and, in essence, calibrated it to only react with the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. Using this method, graphene could also be used to detect variants of COVID-19.

Researchers say the potential applications of a graphene atomic level sensor – from detecting COVID to ALS to cancer – continue to develop.

A provisional patent has been filed on the basis of this work.

Additional co-authors of the article include Ngoc Hoang Lan Nguyen and Sungjoon Kim of UIC. The work was funded by Ramaco Carbon and their subsidiary CAMP, and in part by the Office of Naval Research.

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