Researchers develop fast COVID-19 test using atom-thick sheets of graphene

At a single atom thick, the Nobel Prize-winning material can be used to detect COVID-19, its variants and other targeted biomarkers, University of Illinois Chicago researchers found. (Getty Images)

Researchers at the University of Illinois Chicago have potentially found a new method of passively detecting the coronavirus using sheets of graphene, one of the thinnest and strongest materials on the planet.

Their premise is rather straightforward: First, the researchers studded the graphene surface with antibodies designed to bind to the coronavirus’s spike protein. Whenever they connect, strong molecular vibrations ripple through the sheet, delivering a COVID-19 signal to a super-sensitive motion detector in less than five minutes.

“We have been developing graphene sensors for many years. In the past, we have built detectors for cancer cells and ALS,” said Vikas Berry, Ph.D., professor and head of chemical engineering at the UIC College of Engineering and senior author of the paper published in the journal ACS Nano. “It is hard to imagine a more pressing application than to help stem the spread of the current pandemic.”

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The researchers tested their graphene sheets—a Nobel Prize-winning material made of a single layer of carbon molecules and more than 1,000 times thinner than a piece of paper—with artificial saliva samples both positive and negative for COVID-19 as well as other coronaviruses such as the bug behind Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS.

The changes in the graphene’s vibrations in the presence of COVID-19, optically measured by a Raman spectrometer, proved to be fast, accurate and relatively cheap to collect, minus the cost of the sensor itself.

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“Graphene is just one atom thick, so a molecule on its surface is relatively enormous and can produce a specific change in its electronic energy,” Berry said in a statement

With its unique properties, the researchers say graphene could provide a platform that can be tuned to other COVID variants as well as other diagnostic applications.