Nanotechnology-based biosensor for the detection of harmful bacteria in potable water

(Nanowerk News) Water distribution systems represent potential targets for terrorist activity because of the need for water in every sector of our industrialized society. The deliberate contamination of water reservoirs or pipes with biological agents such as pathogens or biotoxins might constitute a mass destruction bioweapon.

With this in mind, the SPS Multi-Year Project NANOtechnology inspired biosensor with photo-responsive Liquid Crystals – NANO-LC, launched in August 2020, aims at investigating a novel nanotechnology-based biosensor specifically utilized for the detection of harmful bacteria intentionally or unintentionally dispersed in potable water.


The nano-inspired device makes use of a chemically functionalized gold nanoparticle (Au NPs) array (for the selection of specific pathogens) layered with a photo-responsive liquid crystal (LC) film (for real-time detection) and with a microfluidic circuit.

NANO-LC is part of the NATO Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Programme and contributes to NATO’s strategic objectives by developing a new generation of early warning systems that monitor the quality of source water, thus protecting the consumers and minimizing all the related risks. Moreover, NANO-LC actively promotes practical scientific cooperation between a NATO member (Italy) and a partner nation (Republic of Korea).

Project goals

With the vision to improve international security and minimize the risks associated to mass destruction bioweapons, NANO-LC will pioneer a new breakthrough technology aiming at demonstrating the realization of a nanotechnology-based biosensor by synergistic exploitation of chemically functionalized Au NPs and light-responsive LCs.

NANO-LC aims at reinforcing international security thanks to the realization of a miniaturized biosensor able to monitor in realtime the quality of drinkable water. If the water is intentionally or unintentionally contaminated with specific harmful pathogens, the proposed device will be able to recognize/quantify the associated risks, thus alerting competent authorities about contamination. This information is essential to save lives and avoid all the related potential economic consequences.

The proposed biosensor will be characterized by compactness (few cm2), real-time monitoring (∼300-400 ms), extremely high sensitivity (few percentage tolerance) and will offer a quantitative (intensity measurement) along with a chemical recognition (color change) of the bio-associated risks. The low cost of the proposed biosensor will make this technology suitable for a variety of contexts.

Expected results

NANO-LC intends to deliver a truly innovative biosensor with a medium technology readiness level (TRL 4) for the detection of harmful pathogens dispersed in potable water. The strong experience and know-how of the consortium along with the long-lasting collaboration between both NPD/PPD and Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) as end-user will be a key factor for the realization of a new technology capable of contributing to international security.

The role of the end-user will be crucial not only for assisting the consortium during the research and development process, but also assessing the promise of the proposed technology with an eye towards communicating the results to defense customers to enable pushing the technology towards higher TRLs and potentially manufacturing the sensors.