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Research / Discovery

Cenergy, professor create startup to make biosensors that detect contaminants in water, food

May 10, 2010

Colorado State University's Clean Energy commercialization arm, Cenergy, has co-founded a new company with a professor of chemical and biological engineering to manufacture biosensors that detect chemical contaminants in water and food.

Fluorescent light to ID contaminants

Ken Reardon, professor of chemical engineering; Brinson Willis, a graduate RA; and Omon Herigstad, an undergraduate RA, test the biosensor system they have developed.

Professor Ken Reardon, working in tandem with Cenergy, the university’s vehicle for commercializing innovative clean and renewable technologies, has created OptiEnz Sensors LLC to develop, manufacture and sell the biosensors, which rely on fluorescent light to identify contaminants.

With these devices, contaminants such as melamine, gasoline, solvents and nerve agents can be measured without pretreating the sample with other chemicals, Reardon said.

Analyze water where it is

“You can use these biosensors wherever the water is – in a groundwater well, in a lake, or in a wastewater treatment plant pipe. You analyze the water where it is, rather than putting it into bottles for analysis in a remote laboratory,” Reardon said.

The technology relies on optoelectronics as well as biology. Two layers, consisting of a fluorescent chemical and enzymes, are applied to the tip of an optical fiber. When this tip is in contact with a water sample containing a contaminant, the enzymes cause the chemical to react in such a way that the brightness of the fluorescent chemical changes.

Potential to totally change way we detect water and food contaminants

Each biosensor is designed to detect a specific chemical. For example, Reardon’s team has designed and tested a biosensor for benzene, a chemical that is potentially dangerous to human health that enters the environment from emissions from burning coal and oil, gasoline service stations and motor vehicle exhaust. Benzene also has received attention as a chemical being released from hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) at drilling sites.

“If I suspect that benzene might be in the water, this will tell me how much and where,” Reardon said.

“We are very excited about the potential of this solution to totally change the way we detect water and food contaminants — instantly and at the source. If a tractor-trailer turns over and spills fuel in the Poudre River, this technology provides a quick, simple way to test the water immediately right at the source of the accident as well as downstream. Previous to this technology, a water sample had to be sent to a lab to detect fuel contaminants,” said Tim Reeser, Cenergy’s chief operating officer.

Technology developed over more than 10 years

The OptiEnz Sensor technology has been developed over more than 10 years in Reardon’s laboratory at Colorado State University in collaboration with engineering professors Kevin Lear and David Dandy, along with several postdoctoral researchers and graduate and undergraduate students. The OptiEnz Sensor technology has received NSF funding in previous years and recently was awarded funding from the Colorado House Bill 1001 early-stage commercialization grant.

The grant was matched with an investment from Dean Stevinson, who is also serving as chief operating officer. In addition to Reeser, Reardon and Stevinson, the OptiEnz board includes representation from CSU’s Technology Transfer Office and Curtis Vock, CEO of ThinkVillage, a Boulder IP firm that licensed the technology from CSU and has worked closely with CSU to commercialize the IP.

OptiEnz Sensors is working with several government and environment engineering firms to set up field tests of the sensors. Potential applications include homeland security, groundwater testing, environmental clean-up sites and food and beverage testing. [More]

Contact: Emily Wilmsen
Phone: (970) 491-2336