Published April 6, 2021

Rutgers engineers received funding to develop an easy-to-use sensor that detects the presence of COVID-19 in a patient’s breath within minutes.

Edward DeMauro is an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace (MAE) engineering who runs the Emil Buehler Supersonic Wind Tunnel  and the father of three young children. As in-person preschool loomed on the horizon for his four-year-old, he thought there must be a better way to test for and conduct contact tracing for COVID-19 than by scaring a child by sticking a swab up her nose.

As principal investigator on a two-year, $443,000 NIH RADx-Rad award in collaboration with Rutgers HealthAdvance™, DeMauro is working with three SoE co-PIs – MAE colleagues German Drazer and Hao Lin, and electrical and computer engineering associate professor Mehdi Javanmard to do just that.

The team is developing a rapid COVID-19 sensor able to detect the presence of  the SARS-CoV-2 virus within a person’s breath.

DeMauro, the recent recipient of an  Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Defense University Research Instrumentation Program (AFOSR DURIP) grant to purchase equipment for pressure sensitive paint measurements, readily admits that at first glance he may not seem to be the most likely person to be developing a device for detecting the presence of COVID-19. Yet, as he explains, “Drazer, Lin, and I are all fluid dynamics people able to look at an aerodynamic flow and extract particles from an internal flow.”

For the past two years, DeMauro says, he and Drazer and Lin were looking at how to collect – and remove –samples of industrial contaminants from the air. Javanmard had also developed an electronic sensor able to measure and detect different types of proteins in blood samples and other bodily fluids.

When the pandemic shut university labs down from March to July 2020, DeMauro says he and his colleagues were determined not to sit idly by. Instead, they looked for new areas of research to explore.

“We said, ‘Hey, what if we put all of what we’ve been working on together to develop a rapid diagnostic device that could be used to detect a COVID-19 infection simply by having someone breathe into it,’” DeMauro recalls. “We’re developing a system for capturing viral particles from  the patient and depositing them in an electronic sensor.

“We wanted it to be so simple that a four-year-old could breathe into it without being scared and that wouldn’t expose a medical professional to the virus. And we wanted to have a final result that would be available within five to fifteen minutes without having to be sent to a lab to be processed.”

Things came together very quickly for the team, once they learned about the opportunity to apply for NIH RADx-Rad funding through the HealthAdvance™  program to fund the development of a testing device that wouldn’t just be COVID-19-specific but that could just as effectively detect other diseases – including as yet unknown pathogens that could emerge in the future. Briefly, HealthAdvance™ is a commercialization funding program established with partial support from the NIH REACH award to Rutgers Optimizes Innovation, the umbrella program at the university.

“One lesson we’ve learned is that we need to be prepared for the next pandemic,” DeMauro says. “Part of what we’re looking to do in this project is to develop a device that can register the presence of COVID-19, the flu, and future diseases. With this project, we’re going to be investigating our ability to detect COVID and the swine flu.”

According to DeMauro, the researchers are expected to be able to demonstrate a functional prototype in two years, when the funding ends. The device’s sensor will act as a capacitor that holds an antibody for a given virus in place. When someone’s breath hits the sensor, these antibodies will bond to any viral particles present in the patient’s breath. A change in the voltage signal in the sensor will register if the virus is present.  “The benefit of this type of technique,” he explains, “is that we can change the antibodies in the sensor in order to measure a variety of viruses.”

The team envisions a disposable breathalyzer-type device that can be used in schools or at events such as weddings or even the Superbowl where large numbers of people gather. If successful, they will have created a testing device that will let people breathe easier during a deadly pandemic.

The researchers are already working with Rutgers Innovation Ventures and the HealthAdvance™ program, which are helping them to identify possible industry partners to accelerate the commercialization of their innovative device – and also keep their project on track. “Right now, Rutgers has paired us with a HealthAdvance™ industry advisor with experience in the commercialization of early-stage technologies in the medical devices sector to provide industry perspective during the course of our project,” DeMauro reports.


Story originally appeared in Rutgers School of Engineering.

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