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Out of Academia a Sensor Star Is Born

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From food to pharmaceuticals and even gunpowder, many industries rely of chemical analyses to ensure the purity, safety and reliability of what they are manufacturing. Traditionally this has meant dependence on timely, skilled and sometimes costly chemical testing, all of which can be barriers to progress, deliverability and commercial viability. However, as technology becomes smarter and smaller, scientists and engineers are looking to miniaturize and mobilize the testing required to keep our industries going. One such company, Lantha Sensors, was born out of academic research into new metal organic frameworks (MOFs) in 2019 when it was spun out of the University of Texas' College of Natural Sciences by Professor Simon Humphrey.

We spoke to Dr
Stephany McClements from Lantha about the company’s beginnings, what their technology has to offer and the applications they hope to expand into in the future.

Karen Steward (KS): Can you tell us about your instrument and the chemistry behind the test? How did its inception come about and were there any particular drivers that prompted its development?

Stephany McClements(SM):
The underlying technology of our platforms is based on the harmonious pairing of Lantha Sensors’ proprietary metal organic frameworks (MOFs; embedded on test strips) with fluorescence spectroscopy. The MOFs development project started as an academic research project in Prof. Simon Humphrey’s lab at the University of Texas at Austin about a decade ago. Nonetheless, it only became evident to our technology team that we had something special on our hands when companies in the heavy water market reached out to Dr Simon Humphrey and Dr Sam Dunning (co-developers of Lantha’s core technology) to purchase the product after the first publication on the sensing capabilities of our MOF materials in 2017. At that point, our team identified the need for a portable and simple detection platform for isotopic purity determination; lucky for us, we had the right material to fulfill this need. Since then, we have conducted thorough market research across a multitude of verticals. The findings of this research have allowed us to translate the framework of our solution to fulfill similar needs in other industries such as fuel integrity and chemicals distribution.

Lantha’s family of MOFs incorporate phosphine-containing ligands as linkers, and lanthanide metals (Ln) as nodes, yielding robust and stable solid-state materials. Coupling of the phosphine-containing ligands with the lanthanide centers allows for efficient internal energy transfer, which yields emission bands that are narrow and occur in the visible range, with very high quantum yield. Also, the emission is highly element-specific as the emission wavelength is not altered by the coordination environment of the Ln ion. Additionally, given the inherent high volumetric density of structurally identical emission centers (the lanthanide nodes) within MOFs, a large photoluminescent response can be achieved with small quantities of material. These are all ideal characteristics for sensing applications.

Our frameworks are versatile, allowing for incorporation of any Ln3+ metal center ranging from Pr to Lu, and generating isostructural materials (i.e. maintaining the photoluminescent properties across the board.) Two or more Ln3+ ions can be used during synthesis, providing an extensive array of highly tunable and sensitive chemical sensors.

When our materials are exposed to a variety of analytes, regardless of chemical functionalities or polarities, two parameters are extracted from the emission profile: emission color and relative intensity of that emission. The LanthaLux reader is designed to record and appropriately interpret the fluorescent response based on these two parameters. Integrated with our software modules, Lantha Sensors offers solutions at the users’ fingertips whether they are in an oilfield, a chemical distribution warehouse, a lab or a barge in the middle of a transatlantic journey.

KS: How does the instrument compare to existing solutions?

Lantha Sensors’ solutions are designed to be portable, with an incredibly small footprint but also a very robust design so they can reliably be used in field applications. This is the biggest differentiator between our platforms and those of the techniques that we are aiming to displace.

Currently, there are other analytical techniques that can perform the types of assays that we have launched. These include techniques such as Karl Fischer titration (KFT), mass spectrometry and NMR. Nonetheless, none of these techniques are portable. Furthermore, our platform completely outperforms these legacy technologies on every level – cost is reduced by up to 10X, the LanthaLux test takes only five minutes and training takes about the same amount of time. When compared to other technologies, the Lantha platform produces the same accuracy, but has an unbeatable ROI that will displace most of these legacy instruments in the coming years. Finally, in the case of KFT (technique used for moisture analysis in samples), we are also offering a greener alternative as our testing methodology does not generate hazardous waste streams, unlike KFT kits.

KS: In our interconnected world, there is a focus on mobile-compatible devices. Can the instrument be integrated with mobile and tablet devices?

The various components of our solution (LanthaLux reader device and test strips) are integrated with software that is compatible with iOS, Android, and Windows platforms. This means that virtually any mobile device, tablet or PC can be used to control the LanthaLux and to gather and manage the data output and results generated. Once again, we focus on ease of use and significant ROI, while keeping the same accuracy of the more expensive technologies.

KS: Can you tell us about some of the uses to which your system is being put?

The platforms that we are launching are those used for isotopic resolution, moisture detection and fuel integrity testing. We are conducting validation studies and demonstration campaigns with a variety of end users such as operators of CANDU type nuclear reactors (CANDU stands for Canada Deuterium Uranium) who frequently have to test the purity of the heavy water (D2O) that they use in their operations, manufacturers of isotopically labeled compounds, and laboratories that often perform moisture analysis in organic solvents as part of their QC protocols. We are also refining and optimizing our solution for moisture and total S detection in fuels by collaborating with potential end users of this platform.

KS: Are there any challenges that you are looking to address in the future? Where do you see the instrument in 5 years’ time?

Lantha Sensors’ long-term vision is to become the leading portable chemical analysis company. To maximize on our early success, we will expand our sensing capabilities into applications for metals and larger organic species (M.W. > 400 g/mol) and continue our development of a continuous-flow (gas and liquid phase) platform.

Dr Stephany McClements was speaking to Dr Karen Steward, Science Writer for Technology Networks.