If anyone asks me what’s my biggest achievement this summer my answer will be how I tried almost every restaurant near the University of Cincinnati for lunch. And then the second answer will be the color detector research I did at UC’s chemistry department with Dr. Peng Zhang.
When one visualizes data collection and analysis, it will often be researchers working under microscopes, with spectrophotometers or other large, complex lab equipment. However, is there anyway the process can be more practical for field use? Is there a way to make data collection portable, simple and rapid to increase efficiency? The Covid rapid test gives a perfect example to illustrate an inexpensive, convenient and efficient colorimetric testing method that can be widely distributed for non-laboratory use. My research project is based on a very similar logic to determine the amount of an unique, proprietary nanoparticle in a solution. The main idea is to use readily available smartphones with a color detector app that uses the smartphone camera to replace the expensive, large and limitedly available spectrophotometer.
Our test reaction of the nanoparticle binding to its substrate underwent a color change from blue to pink. Quantifying color change with the eye is subjective and it is challenging for the eye to detect small changes in color. We wanted to develop a readily available method to quantitate the color change. Color detector apps read the three primary colors – red, blue, and green – and calculate RGB values. Using the red value to blue value ratio of our reaction as it progresses, we can create a standard curve of known nanoparticle concentration. Using this standard curve, we were successful at calculating the original nanoparticle concentration in a variety of test samples using free color detector apps on two different smartphones. Additionally, we verified the RGB values corresponded to nanoparticle concentration using a UV-Visible spectrophotometer and Beer’s Law.
Through my research experience, I performed the tests under a variety of conditions to verify its ability to work correctly in various scenarios. We tested two types of nanoparticles that act as a catalyst for our reaction of interest. Early experiments were not ideal as we discovered that the external background light has a significant effect on the color detection, and we had to find a way to minimize the impact of different light conditions and shadows. In the end, I did 18 sets of experiments with a complex computer program to show the smartphone method yields results very close to the professional lab equipment.
This research of color detection with the smartphone makes the science process more cost-effective, simple and readily available, allowing scientists and non-scientists to determine results faster and with greater convenience that is not limited by the environment.
The Schiff Family Science Research Institute research experience helped me become more skilled with different lab equipment, such as the pipetmen, and gain more knowledge of instrumentation as well as the biochemist and nanotechnology field. I saw the challenges and difficulties of lab life but also the dedication and passion everyone puts into their science. I highly respect and admire all the researchers for their hard work and hope to join them in future studies. The attraction of science to me is the uncertainty, and that one percent chance of progress and creating new knowledge. I am grateful for this opportunity, even if I didn’t eat lunch on certain days because I was so excited and fully engaged in my research that I needed to see the result before I took a break.
Shuying "Selena" Xie is a senior in The Summit Country Day School's Schiff Family Science Research Institute.