Imagine if a virus like COVID-19 or the flu could be detected in the air so it could be contained to prevent an outbreak.

This technology exists in the form of a Raman spectrometer. The device can analyze an air sample and identify its molecular vibration signal, or the periodic motion of the atoms of a molecule relative to each other. By interpreting the signal, scientists can gain information about what’s in the air and identify chemistry specific to pathogens and viruses that indicate their presence in the sample. 

While its capabilities in virus detection and identification are useful, the spectrometer itself is prohibitively large to transport. What if this device could be smaller and portable, so that people could use it to detect viruses in their communities? Lehigh engineers are exploring this question with an 18-month research project to design a portable Raman spectrometer. 

The project team includes Lehigh faculty members Yaling Liu (bioengineering and mechanical engineering and mechanics), Himanshu Jain (materials science and engineering), and Xuanhong Cheng (bioengineering and materials science and engineering); visiting professor Keith Veenhuizen ’17 PhD (a member of the physics faculty at Lebanon Valley College);  postdoctoral fellow Sajedehalsadat Yazdanparast Tafti ’21 PhD; Simiao Sun (a master’s student in chemical and biomolecular engineering); Amelie Pankov ’24 (a mechanical engineering and astrophysics major); and Jacob Franklin (a recent physics graduate from Lebanon Valley College). 

The team is working with OraSure Technologies to develop the parts for the portable device.

The research is part of an NSF-funded research project on Predictive Intelligence for Pandemic Prevention (PIPP) led by bioengineering and chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Anand Jagota, who is also Lehigh’s vice provost for research. 

“This is a multidisciplinary project with team members from many different backgrounds,” says Cheng. “We are looking to expand our team to more students in data science, machine learning, social sciences, and engineering.”

The researchers are using Lehigh’s existing Raman microscopes to understand the detection limit and sampling procedures. They are also designing the equipment and assembling  components that would be best suited for a portable spectrometer, which they hope to have developed sometime this spring.  

An engineering capstone team has been recruited to build a simple collector that will be integrated with the device. The collector will force air onto the spectrometer to increase the probability that the virus will reach the sensor and be detected.

“It is very exciting to have the opportunity to make a difference in the outcome of future viral outbreaks,” says Pankov. “I am learning so much by studying the technology and conducting hands-on research.” 

One of the goals of the PIPP research project is to develop technologies that study how pandemics spread differently in isolated communities, such as indigenous populations, versus the rest of society. 

After the portable Raman spectrometer is constructed, it will be used to monitor viruses and pathogens in these communities, which often lack health and technology resources. The device will be able to detect virus signatures in densely populated areas and allow people to take precautionary measures. 

“We are studying how the transmission of a disease differs in isolated societies versus the rest,” says Cheng, “and also if there are different biological determinants that make certain populations more vulnerable.”

—Alyssa Caroselli ’24 is a student writer for the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science


From left, Professor Xuanhong Cheng, Jacob Franklin, and Professor Himanshu Jain meet virtually with a group of researchers on the PIPP project (clockwise, from top right of screen): Professor Anand Jagota (Bioengineering/Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering), Professor Kristen Jellison (Civil and Environmental Engineering), Visiting Professor Keith Veenhuizen ’17 PhD (Physics of Lebanon Valley College), doctoral student Nusaibah Alqasawah (Civil and Environmental Engineering), Professor Yaling Liu (Bioengineering/Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics), and doctoral student Matthew Ziarnik (Bioengineering). Photo by Irene Cho