Researcher inspired by action film for new nerve gas detector

A former University of Michigan at Ann Arbor researcher has drawn inspiration from the 1996 big-budget movie "The Rock" to create an inexpensive litmus paper-like nerve gas detector.

In the climax of the movie, a chemical weapons specialist played by Nicolas Cage injects himself in the heart with atropine to prevent his death from VX gas. Jiseok Lee became intrigued by the idea of using the nerve-gas antidote pralidoxime, also known as 2-PAM, to detect the presence of chemical weapons like sarin and VX nerve gases, Scientific American reports.

"I was inspired to use an antidote because an antidote always has a nice affinity to poison," Lee said, according to Scientific American. "That was the start of this research."

Lee and his University of Michigan colleagues used a litmus-like paper sensor to detect sarin gas at a concentration as low as 160 parts per billion within 30 seconds of exposure.

"The test can be done using a simple filter paper, and the sensory materials can be synthesized quite easily," Jinsang Kim, an associate professor in the university's Materials Science and Engineering, Biomedical Engineering and Chemical Engineering departments, said, according to Scientific American.

The chemical solvents and reagents needed to make one filter cost approximately $1. This is much less expensive than some chemical monitoring devices, which can cost more than $6,500. The cheaper detection method, if successfully developed and commercialized, may allow large numbers of soldiers and first responders to be warned against chemical weapon dangers.