Lego® Nerve Gas Detector

Lego® Nerve Gas Detector Made from Lego bricks and a smart phone, a device is connected to free software and utilizes the phone’s camera to identify and detect nerve agents. (University of Texas at Austin)

Chemists design a mobile, affordable nerve gas detector out of Lego® bricks.


A Lego nerve gas detector. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

First responders charged with the serious task of detecting the presence of deadly nerve gas can now use a simple device made out of Legos. UT-Austin organic chemist Pedro Metola says conventional nerve gas detectors cost tens of thousands of dollars and are tethered to a laboratory. But in a war zone, time is of the essence. So his team designed a portable detector box using Legos that holds a smartphone. If a sample contains a nerve agent, it will react with chemicals inside the box, producing different colors and intensities of fluorescent light depending on the type and amount present. 

Analysis is very, very easy. It’s just a matter of taking a picture with your smartphone and processing the data from that picture. 

Metola’s team writes in ACS Central Science that the Lego detector can be reconfigured to fit any phone. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society. 

Making Sense of the Research

Most of us are familiar with Legos® as a toy. But did you know that this ubiquitous toy could be made into a useful tool to help detect deadly chemical weapons?

The researchers involved in the development of this device were working on new ways to detect chemical weapons like a nerve gas such as sarin. Nerve gases are a class of organic chemicals that disrupt the mechanisms by which nerves transfer messages to organs. When these mechanisms are disrupted, a person can lose control of their bodily functions and even die as a result. These gases are colorless and odorless. So, they’re not only deadly but also difficult to detect, which puts anyone trying to determine if those gases are present in danger.

University of Texas Professor of Chemistry Eric Anslyn had previously developed chemical compounds that neutralize nerve agents and at the same time create a glow bright enough to be seen with the naked eye. Building on this work, Xiaolong Sun, a post-doctorate in Anslyn's lab, developed chemical sensors that generate fluorescence. Because different colors and brightness are associated with different nerve agents, the chemical sensors can determine which nerve agent is present. This can help first responders figure out what decontamination procedure they should use and how to treat any victims of the nerve gas, helping to save lives.

The Lego® device comes into play because traditional equipment is not only expensive but also heavy and cannot be transported. The Lego® device consists of a smartphone, a box made out of the Lego® bricks, and the chemical sensors. When the sensors emit the compounds to detect if a  nerve agent is present, the fluorescence created is captured by the camera on the smartphone, which is sensitive enough to detect the differences in color and brightness in the glowing reaction. The color that is detected by the sensor will let first responders know what nerve agent they are dealing with.

The researchers are hopeful that the portable device can be used by first responders and those in war zones to detect what nerve agent is present more easily and take steps to decontaminate the site and help the victims.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What is a nerve agent (nerve gas)?
  2. Why is a nerve gas considered to be so dangerous?
  3. What have researchers been doing to try to detect nerve gases?
  4. How does the Lego® box figure into all of this?

If you want to learn more about how cell phones can be used as medical devices, you can listen to the Cell Phone Medicine Science Update.

Going Further

For Educators

You can extend on the toxic substance angle of this story by going through the Toxicology 1: Toxicology and Living Systems lesson with your students.

If you want to use this Science Update as a motivation for having your students look at engineering and design, you can follow up with a Design Challenge lesson or Extending Human Ability through Technology.

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