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Research case study: Electrochemistry for tuberculosis diagnosis

Electrochemistry is the study and manipulation of matter based on the behaviour of its electrons. It covers a huge range of phenomena, from electroplating cutlery with silver to glucose testing of blood samples for people with diabetes. Electrochemistry needs to be done in an electrically conductive liquid, which brings with it complications – it means the sample isn’t clean, and the solvent can often be toxic or corrosive.

There is, however, no reason why the same type of chemistry cannot be done within a gas, which would eliminate many of these problems. Daren Caruana (UCL Chemistry) has spent a decade finessing these techniques, and is developing a device that will help doctors diagnose tuberculosis.

When infected with the disease, some people are highly contagious as they breathe out a constant stream of bacteria, while others are not. Currently the only way to test this is to make them breathe on agar, and wait and see if any bacteria reproduce. But his plan is to build a relatively cheap electrochemical device that will give a near-instant diagnosis.

Research case study: science at the service of art

Using his extensive experience of transition metal chemistry, Prof Robin Clark realised that Raman spectroscopy could be used to investigate artists’ materials and their degradation products in a novel way. He has since undertaken research to enable the full realisation of the potential of Raman microscopy in the non-destructive technical examination of art objects.

He has been a major contributor to the field since 1993, demonstrating the sensitivity and precision of the technique in identifying pigments and other materials, both rapidly and without ambiguity. 

RM is a non-destructive technique, making it ideal for the analysis of organic and inorganic pigments in artworks and artefacts for which destructive or sampling techniques, such as powder X-ray diffraction and scanning electron microscopy, are not permitted. 

Furthermore, since each distinct material gives rise to a unique Raman spectrum, the technique can be used to unambiguously identify which pigment is present.

UCL research in this area has resulted in impacts on institutions including the Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Library. Around 150 objects are now studied every year using the technique at the V&A, with analysis results impacting upon their conservation, enabling dating and authentication, and informing curators whether objects are appropriate for proposed exhibitions. 

At the British Library, identification of light-sensitive and poisonous pigments on items has impacted upon how they are displayed, stored, loaned and handled.