Alumni: Jon Kitchen – Luminescence sensing

Dr Jon Kitchen is setting up a new lab at the University of Southampton. His research area—supramolecular materials chemistry—can be used to develop devices that test for compounds in a variety of situations, from a simple carbon monoxide test for inclusion in home smoke detectors to detecting chemical warfare agents or monitoring DNA activity. The basis of his research is synthesising chemicals that fluoresce when bound to an identified agent. The trick comes in having chemicals that can be immobilised on a material that can be used to manufacture devices—such as quartz or plastic—without changing their fundamental properties. He is hoping to synthesise devices that can detect multiple agents in a single system, either by synthesising a single molecule that displays detectably different reactions to the presence of different agents or by being able to combine multiple molecules, or layers of molecules, on a single sensor. “It’s not near commercialisation yet, but we’re hoping to move it that way. It’s slightly more advantageous than current monitoring systems in some respects, but all this fundamental research has to be done,” says Kitchen. The process sounds straightforward—synthesise a molecule, test to see if it binds target analytes in solution, then immobilise a small amount on a slide for analysis. By using the Langmuir Blodgett trough, it’s possible to put a single layer of molecules on a surface and use a simple fluorescence spectrometer to check if it has been immobilised and if it fluoresces when bound to compounds. “It’s a very versatile technique. It’s a technique that’s reasonably old and it’s still being used reasonably “Often students on the scheme like to go overseas, particularly to Australia, to do their research, but now I’ve started there there’s a lot of interest in going to New Zealand for six months.” significantly, but not for putting luminescent materials on surfaces—that’s an area that people haven’t looked at in too much detail, often because you lose the response on a surface. We’ve found with the systems we’re using, we don’t—we’ve developed some techniques to overcome it.” Kitchen, a born-and-bred New Zealander, moved to Southampton in 2013. His research group is still under construction—with two students currently under his wing and two PhD students expected when the new academic year starts. His lab is light on equipment, but he’s managed to buy the main tool of his trade—a LB trough— using a Royal Society equipment grant. Anything else he needs, he begs, steals or borrows through connections in the global scientific community. Whilst he has made a sideways move from his PhD research area of magnetochemistry the area still holds some appeal. Kitchen recently co-hosted, with fellow Southampton chemist Dr Tony Keene, a workshop on molecular magnetism in Sydney, funded by the World University Network. Whilst in the Southern Hemisphere, he’s also added in a trip to see family and ex-colleagues in New Zealand, and to spread the word on Southampton’s Masters student placement scheme. Dr Jon Kitchen completed his PhD and Postdoctoral Research at the University of Otago under the supervision of Professor Sally Brooker, Principal Investigator for The MacDiarmid Institute.