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Scientists may be able to identify pollutants in the air using optical fingerprinting, a novel method that can detect molecules using sensors based on ultra-thin nanomaterial.

"This could open up new possibilities for the detection of environmental gases. Our method is more robust than conventional sensors, which rely on small changes in optical properties,” Maja Feierabend, a Ph.D. student at the Department of Physics and the main author of the article from Chalmers University of Technology and Technische Universität Berlin, said in a statement.

Feierabend and a team that includes associate professor Ermin Malic and Gunnar Berghäuser, a postdoctoral researcher at Chalmers, have proposed a new type of chemical nanosensor that consists of atomically thin nanomaterials that are extremely sensitive to changes in their surroundings.

By shining light on the sensor, the optical fingerprint of the material will become visible. Molecules are identified by activating dark electronic stats in the sensor material. If there are molecules on its surface, they will interact with these dark states and switch them on to make them visible. The result is an altered optical fingerprint containing new features that prove the presence of the molecules.

"Our method has promising potential, paving the way for ultra-thin, fast, efficient and accurate sensors. In the future, this could hopefully lead to highly sensitive and selective sensors that can be used in environmental research,” Malic said in a statement.

The researchers have filed a patent application for the sensor method and now plan on working with experimental physicists and chemists to demonstrate the proof-of-principle for this new class of chemical sensors.

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