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Chemicals in the air can be detected by specialized sensors, such as a smoke detector or breath analyzer for humans. But the researchers from Drexel University and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology developed a material that can improve chemical sensors further.

The new material is called MXene, made of a two-dimensional metal with very high conductivity and sensitivity to “scent” out compounds in the air. Its unique chemical composition and porous structure allow gas molecules to move across its surface, defining its high sensitivity to chemical signatures. MXene can also be used in the medical field as it is able to detect ammonia and acetone, indicators of ulcers and diabetes, respectively.

“MXene is one of the most sensitive gas sensors ever reported. This research is significant because it expands the range for detection of common gases allowing us to detect very low concentrations that we were not able to detect before,” said Dr. Yury Gogotsi, the lead author of the study and a professor at the College of Engineering at Drexel’s.

In the world of chemical sensors, the ranking quality of sensors is classified by signal-to-noise ratio. Sensors with the best quality have higher signal and lower noise. Most models used in the medical industry have a ratio between 3 and 10, while MXene has 170 to 350, depending on the chemical. The new material can even detect gases at lower concentrations if it sustains conductivity, low electrical noise, and produce a strong signal. It can detect gases in the ranges between 50 and 100 parts per billion.

That range can help clinicians diagnose diseases, such as cancer, cirrhosis, multiple sclerosis, and kidney diseases based on chemical compounds in the air. And with the high sensitivity of the new material, diseases may be detected and treated early.