June 22, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College


by Adrian Giordani

What do alien life and pregnancy tests have in common? These concepts seem worlds apart but UK scientists have been performing technological alchemy with instruments designed to search for life on Mars.

The ExoMars mission is the first attempt to locate organic material from samples one to two metres just below the surface of Mars. The aim is to explore the chemistry, mineralogy and the evidence of life on the Red Planet. Perhaps the most likely type of life-related organic matter is fossil material.

Professor Mark Sephton from Imperial College works on the Life Marker Chip (LMC). Its system acts like a detergent by using ‘surfactants’ to trap organic material in an emulsion so that they’re suspended in water. The surfactants are of potential advantage to the petroleum industry. “The petroleum industry encounters a number of problems when it comes to using toxic organic solvents or cleaning water used in the production of oil. The UK is heavily involved in this industry and the technology can make the process cleaner, greener and more efficient.”

Professor David Cullen from Cranfield University works on the analysis phase of the LMC, which is based on ‘lateral-flow immunodiagnostics’. The common use of the technology is in modern pregnancy test kits in high street chemists. “It is also used in more clinical settings for rapid diagnosis of various diseases and research is now on-going into spinning the technology into other fields such as environmental applications, security and defence.” One potential application would be for rapid onsite results from drug tests of roadside suspects.

ExoMars technology has an ‘Earth-bound yin’ to its ‘Mars-bound yang’. While the ‘new science’ will not begin operations on Mars until 2019, the terrestrial applications are already here or just around the corner.



IMAGE: Kriss Szkurlatowski, stock.xchng