Oxygen is ubiquitous in nature and it plays a key role in several biological processes, such as cellular respiration and food deterioration, to name a few. Currently, reversible and non-destructive oxygen sensing is usually performed with sensors produced by photosensitization of phosphorescent organometallic complexes. In contrast, we propose a novel route of optical oxygen sensing by fluorescence-based quenching of oxygen. We hereby developed for the first time a set of multi-emissive purely organic emitters. These were produced through a one-pot hydrothermal synthesis using p-phenylenediamine (PPD) and urea as starting materials. The origin of the multi-emission has been ascribed to the diversity of chemical structures produced as a result of oxidative oligomerization of PPD. A Bandrowski’s base (BB, i.e., trimer of PPD) is reported as the main component at reaction times higher than 8 h. This indication was confirmed by electrospray-ionization quadrupole time-of-flight (ESI-QTOF) and liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) analysis. Once the emitters are embedded within a high molecular weight poly (vinyl alcohol) matrix, the intensities of all three emission centers exhibit a non-linear quenching provoked by oxygen within the range of 0–8 kPa. The detection limit of the emission centers are 0.89 kPa, 0.67 kPa and 0.75 kPa, respectively. This oxygen-dependent change in fluorescence emission is reversible (up to three tested 0–21% O2
cycles) and reproducible with negligible cross-interference to humidity. The cost-effectiveness, metal-free formulation, cross-referencing between each single emission center and the relevant oxygen range are all appealing features, making these sensors promising for the detection of oxygen, e.g., in food packaged products.
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