GIDPROvis - Visualizing the unseen world of chemicals

Could Chemical factories monitor emissions and alert workers and the public in the case of hazardous chemical releases? Potential applications for the new technology are numerous and span from heath applications and air quality monitoring to improving chemical safety and guaranteeing access to essential information for first responders.

In GIDPROvis, two original breakthrough technologies - Gas Ion Distillation (GID) and Sequential Ion Processing (PRO) - provide live visualization (vis) of volatile chemicals in ambient environments, providing humans access to a molecular world previously unseen.

While many prominent smells, such as brewing coffee in the morning or freshly cut grass, are pleasant, there are others – like the smell of sulphur - that immediately alert us and serve as a warning and a signal to stay away from the source. Many smells, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant, often guide us either consciously or unconsciously, but have so far remained beyond human vision. 

The goal of the GIDPROvis project is to make the chemical constituents of ambient air visible through augmented reality and provide people with information on the actual composition of the airborne vapours around them. Molecular auras in GIDPROvis are delivered by small, portable GIDPRO analysers based on high-speed separation of ions derived from individual chemicals and their identification using an emerging generation of ion analysers.

While GIDPROvis is principally technology driven, aspects of human emotional responses to massive access to chemical information, impacts from these perceptions, and human psychology will be explored in simulated, controlled visual experiences of chemical auras. The final aim is to launch a fourth generation of methodology for chemical analysis aligned intrinsically to 5G and IoT communication at a miniaturized, ultra-low detection level, live data analysers for detecting and identifying chemicals in complex matrices. 

Professor Gary Eiceman, a world leader in the development of ion mobility technology, has described the project as one with a radical goal. Making visible the invisible world of molecules may elevate human perception to a level that is unattainable for the nose or eyes. Potential applications for the new technology are numerous and span from heath applications and air quality monitoring to improving chemical safety and guaranteeing access to essential information for first responders. Chemical factories could monitor emissions and alert workers and the public in the case of hazardous chemical releases. People sensitive to certain allergens could plan their activities with knowledge of current air quality conditions, as chemical information could be viewed accurately in real time. In short, the solutions developed in the GIDPROvis project would enable detailed and real-time monitoring of information pertaining to chemicals in the air.  

In the concept of GIDPROvis, a technique for identifying molecules is needed for separating chemical compounds. In GID, chemical mixtures are ionized and separated in milliseconds using a pioneering concept of chemical separations through differences in the reaction chemistry of gas phase ions. This is “new chromatography” and a paradigm shift that will eliminate columns, stationary phases, and mobile phases, replacing classic methods for chemical separations based on physical properties. GID is an analogue for processes that occur in oil refineries at a molecular level, except using the low-energy principles of chemical reactions. This is the largest challenge of GIDPROvis, along with being a revolutionary aspect, as nothing similar has ever before been demonstrated or even proposed at a molecular level. 

After the ions have been separated and isolated, a technique will be required for their identification. In the ion processing step, ions of individual chemicals are processed in electric fields to elucidate molecular identity. SIPRO builds on emerging capabilities to fragment gas ions in air at ambient pressure using strong electric fields, providing structurally significant molecular information – a new scientific achievement. In addition to detection, the GIDPROvis device will therefore also identify the chemicals it detects. Identifying a chemical is not a simple process, as it requires a threshold level of certainty, and this technical challenge is also embraced in the project. Identification specialists in the consortium will be establishing spectral libraries, making the identification of chemicals possible.  

One integral part of the project will be the Data Hub, where chemical information from the GID-SIPRO technology is transmitted. Spectral interpretation is performed in real time and includes molecular identities and vapour concentrations of volatile organic compounds in ambient air atmospheres. The findings are presented in visual augmented reality in formats suitable for a user. What humans wish to know about their environment and how they react to that information are significant components for making GIDPROvis suitable for various user groups, from first responders to researchers and ordinary citizens. This will provide the guidelines for chemical information delivery in augmented reality in the most relevant way.  Reactions to chemical vapours in real time in proximity to humans is largely unexplored, and pioneering studies in the human dimension of molecular augmented reality are anticipated. For example, specialists in chemical safety require detailed data on chemicals found in the air, while people living close to major roads are likely in need of real-time and understandable information on current air pollution levels.  

The GIDPROvis consortium’s business members have focused on the commercialization opportunities from the onset of the project, and the first commercial applications based on the technical solutions developed in the project may be introduced to the market just four years from now. As the project director, Professor Vanninen has said, only our imagination is the limit for these applications. 

The GIDPROvis consortium brings together researchers across Europe, including both early-career scientists and senior researchers working together across subject material (interdisciplinary) borders. The project also intends to engage the next generation of researchers, and this is well underway, as two upper secondary school pupils and their teachers are already valued members of the consortium. 

Text: Gary Eiceman, Paula Vanninen and Hanna Hakulinen 

GIDPROvis project director, professor Paula Vanninen (left), laboratory analyst Lauri Mauravaara, postdoctoral researcher Elie Lattouf, and research director Hanna Hakulinen gathered in VERIFIN’s GC-MS laboratory. 

EU’s Horizon 2020 FET Open programme funding

GIDPROvis (Gas Ion Distillation and Sequential Ion Processing Technologies for Identification and Visualization of Chemicals in Airborne Vapours) is a project funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 FET Open programme, where novel detector technology is to be developed by a consortium coordinated by the Finnish Institute for Verification of the Chemical Weapons Convention (VERIFIN) of the Chemistry Department of the University of Helsinki. GIDPROvis aims to create an entirely new way for observing the surrounding world of chemicals, and the technological solutions under development in the project can be used to measure and visualize the constituents of air – chemical emissions or pollution – accurately and in real time. The project is active from October 2020 until September 2023. 

The project is led in Helsinki jointly by Prof. Paula Vanninen, who serves as the project director, and Prof. Gary Eiceman, the scientific director of GIDPROvis. The University of Helsinki is partnered with the Department of Sensors and Measurement Technology of Leibniz University Hannover and the Department of Analytical Chemistry of the National Technical University of Athens. The business partners are Airsense Analytics GmbH, a German sensor manufacturer; Karsa Oy, a Finnish company developing technical solutions for detecting chemical threats; Atos Spain SA, a Spanish IT company with a unit specialized in analysing big data; and T4i Engineering, a Greek company specialized in chemical sensing.