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Safe? Clean? Contaminated?

DIY chemistry providing fast, accurate answers

Dr. Sam Mugo
Photo Credit: Steven Stefaniuk, Grant MacEwan University

When Dr. Sam Mugo visited Kenya a few months ago, he couldn’t help but notice the impact of cell phone technology in his home country.

“Even in a remote village in Kenya, everyone has a cell phone,” says the associate professor of Chemistry at MacEwan University. “It has changed the way people live and connected them to the rest of the world in a new way.”

Dr. Mugo is hoping to make the same impact with chemistry. His research involves creating simple, inexpensive, easy-to-use miniaturized versions of chemistry equipment.

“Today chemistry is very time consuming, expensive and isolated—samples need to be sent to a lab where experts use very expensive instrumentation to run tests,” he says. “This research is about changing chemistry from an esoteric science that is only available to those who can afford it, and making it available to everyone who needs it.”

The goal is to provide inexpensive chemical testing technology that doesn’t require a chemist, and can be used in the field at the point of sampling. People in remote villages could test their drinking water for E. coli contamination. Food inspection agencies could conduct on-site tests for foodborne illness, pesticides or contaminants. Police officers could use roadside tests to detect marijuana use in drivers. The possibilities are endless.

It all begins at the microscopic level with responsive—or smart—polymers, explains Dr. Mugo, which act like magnets, responding only to the one thing they are attracted to and ignoring everything else.

A particularly timely example is his work to identify a smart polymer that detects cannabinoids.

Today, testing for THC (the active cannabinoid in marijuana) means collecting a urine or saliva sample, sending it to a lab where a chemist uses a gas chromatography-mass spectrometer—which has a price tag of about $100,000—to detect it, and then waiting for the results.

Now that Dr. Mugo has identified a smart polymer for cannabinoids, he is looking for ways to integrate it into inexpensive devices that use a variety of strategies, such as a change of colour, to communicate findings to the end user.

“The materials we are identifying can be used in other applications too—in ways that not only detect a problem, but can also mitigate it,” says Dr. Mugo. “Life is molecular in nature and chemistry is at the heart of it—we can use it to address real problems that are relevant to everyone. That’s what drives us—to put something on the table that makes life better.”

At least 30 undergraduate students will also contribute to Dr. Mugo’s research, with support from a 2016 Discovery Grant.

“We’re using resources we receive from these grants to train our students—and that’s the most fulfilling part for me,” says Dr. Mugo. “It’s one thing to teach students based on what they can learn in textbooks, but it’s another when students are involved in applying what they have learned to a real problem, and developing and fabricating technologies to solve it.”

Article adapted with permission from This link will take you to another Web site MacEwan University.