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The potential of light to transform the world: A conversation with Professor Yuliya Semenova

Posted: 11 May, 2017

A fascinating interview with Professor Yuliya Semenova, a research scientist at DIT, about the potential of the Fibre Optic Nose to detect chemical pollution, food spoilage and human disease.

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Professor Yuliya Semenova came to Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) in 2001 from Ukraine to work on a short-term postdoctoral position. Fifteen years later, she has carved out a successful academic career combining her passion for teaching and research in photonics. She currently has seven PhD students working under her supervision and was recently awarded the title of DIT Honorary Professor. Her specialisation is optical sensing, with a strong applied focus in the areas of engineering, smart materials, medicine and light energy harvesting. We caught up with Yuliya to talk about the potential impact of the fascinating Fibre Optic Nose research project. 

What inspired you to focus on photonics as your research area?

From an early age, I was fascinated with optical effects: rainbows and different kinds of lights, colours. I was drawn to science and technology, to finding answers to how the world works. There are several engineers in my family, so it was no surprise when I decided to study electronic engineering. By the time I graduated, I knew that photonics was my passion because everything that was related to the principles behind light generation, manipulation and detection interested me greatly.

Can you tell me in a nutshell what is photonics?

Photonics is everything you can imagine about light, from light generation and optical sources to various ways to change, redirect, display or detect light. This includes a wide range of phenomena and devices, including lasers, LEDs, optical fibres, TV/computer screens and solar panels. You can communicate information from one point to another with light, you can measure things with light because it is very good at detecting changes, you can convert solar energy into electrical energy and store it.

Can you tell me a bit about your research project - Fibre Optic Nose? 

In the fibre optic nose project, we are trying to emulate the human olfactory system, or in other words, our sense of smell. We are working on creating a fibre optic sensor that mimics the various receptors in the human nose which react to changes in different odours. An interrogation unit then reads and processes that information, much like the human brain interprets signals from the human nose.

In many cases, these gases and vapours could be toxic and in certain workplaces, for example in the chemical industry, it is important to monitor these toxic vapours to limit workers’ exposure. Having a ‘nose’ that can record this information and detect changes in real time could prevent dangerous exposure. The fibre optic nose could be used in fuel storage facilities to prevent an environmental disaster and to control levels of pollution. We’re also exploring food safety and quality control. Fish and meats, for example, omit organic vapours. If you can analyse their content in real-time, you can estimate the shelf life of a product, how far it can be transported.

We are working with researchers in the DIT Centre for Research in Engineering Surface Technology (CREST) to develop a range of coatings for our fibre optic structures. Essentially, what we will have is an array of micro-balls or very thin glass wires, each with a different coating, and each of the coatings will interact with a particular gas or chemical to determine a minute change in its concentration.  

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A micrograph of a microsphere from the Fibre Optic Nose project

Are there other areas that the fibre optic nose could impact?

Medical diagnostics. There is the potential to detect biomarkers in human breath, which could possibly be used as a diagnostic for brain injuries and disease. In sports, when someone gets a concussion, it is very difficult to make the decision whether this player can go back in the field or whether there is the potential for serious brain injury. Some recent studies reported that the presence of certain chemicals in human breath could be indicators of whether there is brain trauma. Our fibre optic nose could potentially be used like a breathalyser, giving a real-time answer about whether there is reason for concern.

The ability of light to identify the presence of certain molecules in human blood or breath can also help to detect diseases such as cancer, heart disease, brain damage, diabetes. We currently go for blood tests, we send it to the lab, and we wait for hours to days for the results. We have a problem with aging people sitting in beds in hospital emergency rooms because there’s nowhere people can be moved while they’re waiting for the test results. Being capable of real-time, off-site testing, at home testing, diagnostic kits: photonic sensors could provide technology that gives you an answer immediately and the method of testing is non-invasive. In medicine, we are moving away from just trying to cure diseases to very early diagnostics. Biomarkers or molecules can be present in blood and breath before symptoms of a disease develop. So you could not only diagnose and treat the disease early, you could also potentially develop ways of preventing certain diseases. I think the fibre optic nose could make a very big difference in this field and I am very interested to continue working in this area. We are not working on these medical applications right now, but it could be one of the potential future uses for this product.

How is the fibre optic nose different from other electronic noses that are currently in use? 

The advantages of our fibre optic nose is that it can be placed in an explosive or aggressive environment, it can provide information in real time, and it can detect odour concentrations at extremely low levels, as parts per billion in some cases. Electronic sensors can only detect parts per million, so it’s several orders of magnitude greater. Another advantage of our sensors is that they can operate remotely because optical fibre can span over hundreds of kilometres. We are also working to make the sensors replaceable, disposable, and even self-cleaning so that they can be re-used.

What is the timeline on the Fibre Optic Nose project?

We have been working on the actual fibre structures for a few years. We recently received funding from Enterprise Ireland for an 18-month period to create a solid base for commercialisation. We’re focusing on developing very specific prototypes, which will be tested by end users. We are working with several partners in the food and environmental industries to develop tailored solutions for them. If that works well, maybe a spin-out company. We are collaborating with DIT Hothouse on the commercialisation side of the project.

What advice would you give to the next generation of budding researchers?

You have to be really passionate about your subject to be successful. Find an area of research that you are really passionate about and have fun with it. Sometimes research is a tough process, sometimes nothing goes right for months. That’s normal! Don’t be discouraged by uncertainties. We are increasingly living in a society that is dependent on science and technology, so if you work on developing the best set of skills, you will always be in demand. If you find it fun, if you enjoy what you do, you will never work another day in your life.

Why do you do what you do? What drives you to do research in photonics? 

I believe photonics will transform our society in a few decades. It drives innovation, it drives growth in life sciences, advanced materials, medicine and healthcare, security. That is hugely interesting to me. All I want to do is to apply my knowledge and experience in photonics in various ways and hopefully make a difference. I really enjoy my work. I enjoy solving difficult problems. I believe that the field I’m working in has great potential to transform our lives. 

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