News Release

Release Date: April 29, 2014

NETL Nanotechnology May Make Life Easier for Diabetics


Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory and the University of Pittsburgh have developed a hybrid nanostructure with a unique sensitivity to acetone that has the potential to easily and non-invasively monitor blood sugar.

By bolstering super-tiny carbon nanotubes with titanium dioxide—the same ingredient found in most sunscreens—the researchers discovered that they could produce an electrical semiconductor with ultra-high sensitivity to acetone vapors.

Diabetics produce higher-than-normal concentrations of acetone when their blood glucose levels are high. The excess acetone is exhaled at high rates, causing a "fruity" aroma on their breath. The acetone sensitivity of the hybrid nanostructure developed by the researchers makes it potentially useful for application in a breath analyzer to test for and monitor diabetes.

Carbon nanotubes are highly conductive. Titanium dioxide is refractive and absorbs ultraviolet rays. The research team combined titanium dioxide with carbon nanotubes to form a hybrid nanostructure, which exhibited a unique response to ultraviolet illumination and subsequent exposure to acetone. The electrical conductivity of the hybrid decreased as acetone concentrations increased.

Sensors based on carbon nanotubes are extremely small, inexpensive, and use little to no power. They are also compatible with complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) technology, which means they could potentially be incorporated into modern electronic devices, such as smart phones. These advantages make these sensors ideal for chemical sensing and non-invasive medical diagnostic tools. If used as a sensing tool, the material could offer millions of diabetics a non-invasive alternative method for testing blood sugar.

This month, NETL and many other of the Energy Department’s national labs are showcasing their contributions to "The Science of the Very Fast and Very Small." For more information, please visit the Energy Department’s national lab webpage.