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Now Available: Innovators Under 35 2013 See The 2013 List »

Andrea Armani, 31

Sensitive optical sensors detect single molecules

University of Southern California

Andrea Armani, an assistant professor of chemical engineerin­g and materials science, has developed the first optical sensor that can detect single molecules without the use of labels such as fluorescent tags. No label-free detector previously developed has been sensitive enough to distinguish a single molecule.

Armani's sensor consists of a microscopic silica ring that sits on a pedestal atop a silicon wafer. "It's this little, tiny doughnut-shaped device," she says. The ring captures photons from a laser and holds them in orbit. Its surface is chemically treated to snag molecules of the target substance from the surrounding environment. As soon as even one molecule of the compound is ensnared, it creates a detectable change in the ring's optical properties.

Because it works in liquids, including blood, the sensor could be an ideal diagnostic device. Armani envisions, for instance, incorporating one into intravenous catheters that would monitor a patient for infection, picking up telltale molecules in minuscule quantities long before symptoms appeared. --Jocelyn Rice

Zeroing in: A tiny doughnut-shaped silica ring atop a silicon wafer acts as an extremely sensitive optical sensor. The ring's optical properties change when even a single molecule binds to it.
Credit: Courtesy Andrea Armani

2009 TR35 Winners

Andrea Armani

Sensitive optical sensors detect single molecules

James Carey (video)

Using “black silicon” to build inexpensive, super-sensitive light detectors

Adam Dunkels

Minimal wireless-networking protocols allow almost any device to communicate over the Internet

Kevin Fu (video)

Defeating would-be hackers of radio frequency chips in objects from credit cards to pacemakers  

Andrew Houck

Preserving information for practical quantum computing

Shahram Izadi (video)

An intuitive 3-D interface helps people manage layers of data

Ali Javey

“Painting” nanowires into electronic circuits

Anat Levin

New cameras and algorithms capture the potential of digital images

Pranav Mistry (video)

A simple, wearable device enhances the real world with digital information

Aydogan Ozcan

Inexpensive chips and sophisticated software could make microscope lenses obsolete

Vera Sazonova

World’s smallest resonator could lead to tiny mechanical devices

Elena Shevchenko

Assembling nanocrystals to create made-to-order materials

Dawn Song

Defeating malware through automated software analysis

Andrea Thomaz (video)

Robots that learn new skills the way people do

Adrien Treuille (video)

Complex physics simulations that can run on everyday PCs

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