What Is a Chemical Trap?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 10 May 2020
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In science, a “chemical trap” can refer to several different things, including a device to sequester chemicals for safety, a form of chemical cage to isolate molecules, and a piece of detection equipment. The intended meaning is usually clear from the context where the term is used. Chemical traps can rely on reactions with specific molecules to accomplish their purpose, as well as specialized filtration systems. They may be custom-designed in the lab or sold by scientific suppliers.

Devices intended to trap chemicals may prevent contamination, assist with environmental cleanup, or protect people in an environment where dangerous chemicals are used. They include a filter designed to attract molecules of the chemical involved, trapping them while allowing other materials to flow through. Activated charcoal is one example of a filtration material; others may use coated beads and reactive chemicals, depending on what the equipment is designed to sequester.

Chemical cages are used in scientific research to tightly control molecules, releasing them with precise timing. This can be important for activities like studying chemical signaling in the brain. Researchers can hold a neurotransmitter inside the trap and release it with a flash of light or another chemical to see what it does. Designing such research tools is complicated, because they need to be able to hold molecules while still allowing for a quick release that doesn’t cause damage to neighboring tissue.

Another form of chemical trap is a detector. Sometimes concentrations of chemicals are extremely low, or they are highly reactive and cannot be read by ordinary means. In this case, a reactive agent can be used as a chemical trap to indicate when another agent is present. For example, a researcher working with cells might use a chemical that fluoresces to betray the presence of another chemical of interest. In addition to confirming that something is in a sample, the trap can also provide information about its level of concentration.

In all cases, the chemical trap needs to be designed for a very specific application, because chemicals behave very differently depending on their component atoms and molecular construction. In research settings, chemists may custom-develop a chemical trap for a very particular application in order to get the best results for their purposes. Part of a research project may include determining how to devise an effective chemical trap to develop results that will withstand repetition of the testing, and peer review of the results.

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