Texas Tech professor receives DARPA grant for developing indoor COVID-19 detector

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that can cause headaches, dizziness and even death in certain circumstances. Since this potentially deadly gas is so elusive and dangerous, many homes across the U.S. have carbon monoxide detectors to warn residents of its presence. So, what if that same technology could be used to detect invisible, dangerous and potentially deadly pathogens like pandemic-causing COVID-19?

Gerardine "Gerri" Botte, a professor and Whitacre Department Chair in the Department of Chemical Engineering through Texas Tech University's Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering, received a $999,047 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to study just that.

I have developed a sensor, which we have demonstrated can detect the passing of SARS-CoV-2. We have done it in saliva and in water, and it's very fast. It happens within less than a second. In this project, we propose ways to extend the sensor that has worked so well in these media into collecting from air. Ideally, by the time this project concludes, we should be able to develop a prototype that will be tested for determining the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in air."

Gerardine "Gerri" Botte, Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering, Texas Tech University

The idea behind the project is to develop an indoor COVID-19 sensor, like a carbon monoxide detector, that can detect traces of COVID-19 and other airborne viruses. Knowing if COVID-19 has been detected in a building can help mitigate the spread.

"If you detect it early, you could do surveillance," Botte said. "You could be able to say, 'OK, there is a certain contamination in this building,' then you could potentially close and isolate that building. You could detect something that is coming early enough before it creates an impact. Let's say the virus was detected in the air in a conference room. You can see who has entered that conference room and immediately put those people in quarantine before they potentially transmit the virus to others."

The DARPA grant is an accelerated, year-and-a-half program. Botte began working on the project this month and should have results by August 2022.

"This is a very exciting opportunity for us at Texas Tech to get something brand new that has never been done before," she said. "I'm very excited by the potential implications of this research for our community, for stopping the pandemic, contributing somehow and for the opportunity the graduate students and the postdocs involved in this research are going to have to really work in research that ends in an immediate application, at an accelerated pace."

More than anything, Botte is excited for the chance for her work at Texas Tech to be part of something much larger.

"If this project becomes like a carbon monoxide detector for the virus, can you imagine the opportunity to have a piece of Texas Tech's heart everywhere protecting our nation?" Botte said. "That's what makes me excited, and that's how I see this project: protecting the world."

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