A study published in Scientific Reports has found that material typically used in paint, glass and ceramics may be manipulated to produce a UV-light sensor that is ultra sensitive, improving applications in smoke, gas and fire detection.

Researchers from the University of Surrey manipulated zinc oxide to create nanowires capable of UV-light detection with 10,000 times more sensitivity than the usual detectors made of zinc oxide. Photoelectric smoke detectors currently sense larger particles in denser smoke but can't detect smaller particles typical in rapid-burning fires. With increased sensitivity, new zinc oxide detectors will be able to catch particles specifically emitted during a fire's early stages. Aside from improving current applications, new ones may come to light as well due to the discovery of the new material.

Ravi Silva from the Advanced Technology institute at the University of Surrey said that using zinc oxide in UV light detectors is nothing new but he and his colleagues ramped up material's performance by changing its appearance.

"Essentially, we transformed zinc oxide from a flat film to a structure with bristle-like nanowires, increasing surface area and therefore increasing sensitivity and reaction speed," he explained.

The researchers predict applications for this new form of zinc oxide may be far-reaching, from gas and fire detection to monitoring pollution levels in the air. They also believe sensors may be integrated into personal devices, increasing speed in phones and tablets, what with the new zinc oxide sensor responding 1,000 times faster than typical detectors.

Silva added that their research is a fine example of how designer, bespoke nanomaterials may be adapted to personal needs without hiking up costs too much. Because of the way the new material is made, it is best suited for flexible electronics, which is a widely exciting area with a lot of potential for growth.

The study received funding support from the Government of the State of Kuwait and the Public Authority of Applied Education and Training. Other authors include: Mohammad Alenezi and Simon Henley.

According to the American Red Cross, 7 people die every day from home fires while 36 are injured on average while more than $7 billion in property damage each year are attributed to fires. These figures highlight the importance of using smoke detectors to protect life and property by warning against fires before they worsen. With its Home Fire Preparedness Campaign, the Red Cross endeavors to cut deaths and injuries associated with home fires by 25 percent within five years.

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