Harvard’s uMED could bring electrochemical testing to the masses

By on August 13, 2014

The uMED, or universal mobile electrochemical detector, can transmit analysis data to the cloud through any cellular phone or network. (Credit: Alex Nemiroski)

Inspired by fax modems and blood-glucose meters, Harvard University researchers have developed a new handheld electrochemical detector that could potentially bring the benefits of reliable chemical analysis technology and expertise to billions of people around the world.

The universal mobile electrochemical detector, or uMED, is compatible with a number of electrodes and test strips, and can detect thousands of chemicals. This versatility combined with a low price tag make the device ideal for in-field agricultural and environmental monitoring, and initial trials that detected heavy metals in water samples showcase its capability for water quality applications.

The most unique feature of the uMED, however, is its ability to transmit analysis data to the cloud through any cellular phone or network.

“It all started with providing low-cost diagnostics for resource-poor settings,” said Alex Nemiroski, a post-doctoral research fellow at Harvard. “Analytical chemistry enables many sophisticated methods of detecting and measuring all sorts of important chemicals and biochemicals, but the need for expensive equipment, training and resources makes the benefits of these technologies completely inaccessible for billions.”

While basic electrochemical detection in a test-strip format is a widely used technology — diabetics are familiar with it in the form of blood-glucose meters — more advanced detection schemes needed to detect other important substances require both expensive instrumentation and considerable scientific expertise.

“We knew that solving one of these problems wouldn’t be enough,” Nemiroski said. “We had to solve for both for our technology to be actually useful to the people who we intend it for.”

The uMED data scheme (Credit: Alex Nemiroski)

That’s where the cell phone compatibility comes in. Much like a fax machine, the uMED converts digital data through a headphone jack into a series of tones that transmit via cellular voice channels, eliminating the need for smartphones or high-speed data connections — an important factor with nearly 3 billion people still using low-end phones on 2G networks. Scientific and medical professionals can then aid in data analysis remotely, Nemiroski said.

Built off the inexpensive Arduino microcontroller board, the uMED costs about $25 to manufacture. Although the researchers only demonstrated its ability to detect nine chemicals in their paper, the possibilities are hypothetically endless.

“Basically, for any chemical in question, if it can be detected by a known electrochemical technique, chances are the uMED can perform the necessary electrochemical sequence to detect it,” Nemiroski said.

The researchers are working with partners at home and in India to conduct field tests and develop the uMED as a commercial product. Nemiroski said that the device will appeal to a wide variety of users, including health-workers, farmers, lab technicians and soldiers.

Top image: The uMED, or universal mobile electrochemical detector, can transmit analysis data to the cloud through any cellular phone or network.  (Credit: Alex Nemiroski)

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