NSF center to transform sensor technology

NSF center to transform sensor technology

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded a $15-million Engineering Research Center based at Princeton University that is expected to revolutionize sensor technology, yielding devices that have a unique ability to detect minute amounts of chemicals found in the atmosphere, emitted from factories or exhaled in human breath. Rice University is one of five core partner institutions with Princeton for the center, which is among the NSF’s largest and most prestigious grants.

The goal of the research is to produce devices that are so low in cost and easy to use that they transform aspects of the way doctors care for patients, local agencies monitor air quality, governments guard against attack and scientists understand the evolution of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Work performed by the center — dubbed “MIRTHE” (Mid-Infrared Technologies for Health and the Environment) — will span from fundamental science to applied technology.

At Rice, which will receive $2.4 million of the center’s funds, scientists plan to develop highly advanced laser sensors to measure smog and air-pollution emissions.

A key technology enabling the center’s work is the quantum cascade laser, which is named for the way the electrons “cascade” through thin layers of material stacked within the device. The major advantage of quantum cascade lasers is that they emit light in the part of the spectrum known as the mid-infrared. Infrared light refers to electromagnetic radiation of a wavelength longer than that of visible light. The ability to produce and detect these wavelengths allows scientists to “see” certain chemicals in the same way that sunlight and the human eye reveal everyday objects.

“When viewed in the mid-infrared, the world is alive with chemicals like ammonia, carbon, methane, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and benzene,” said Matt Fraser, an associate director of the center and associate professor in civil and environmental engineering at Rice. “The ability to detect or monitor these gases with a high degree of sensitivity provides important information about the processes that produced them.”

Fraser noted that the mid-infrared sensing systems Rice researchers hope to develop should also have applications for the health profession. The sensors could be used to analyze exhaled breath, which could allow doctors to diagnose and monitor diseases. “Quantifying very small amounts of gases in the air you breathe out can offer clues about the body’s metabolism and the function of vital organs like the kidneys, lungs and liver,” Fraser said.

Another application of these sensors that MIRTHE participants will explore entails detecting chemical weapons by measuring trace levels of contaminants at airports, train stations and other areas that might be targets of terrorists.

Claire Gmachl, director of the center and associate professor of electrical engineering at Princeton, said the sensors the MIRTHE researchers are creating will be portable and easy to use. “Today’s state-of-the-art sensors are very sensitive but require an expert to operate and are bulky and expensive,” she said. “MIRTHE’s vision is to make sensors with the same or better level of sensitivity at a fraction of the size and cost.”

MIRTHE’s mission also includes helping to ensure a competitive U.S. workforce by educating a new generation of technologically savvy leaders who carry forward the center’s knowledge to industry, government and academia. The center will incorporate extensive efforts to engage college and K-12 students in hands-on science and engineering projects.

The center will combine the work of about 40 faculty members, 30 graduate students and 30 undergraduates from Princeton, Rice, the University of Maryland–Baltimore County, Johns Hopkins University, Texas A&M University and City College New York and collaborate with dozens of industrial partners to turn the technology into commercial products.

MIRTHE is also collaborating with dozens of industrial partners to turn the technology into commercial products, and the center is working with several educational outreach partners that will use MIRTHE’s research as a vehicle for improving science and engineering education. By connecting technology with societal needs, MIRTHE will create an educational and research environment that is relevant and appealing to a broad population.

In addition to Fraser, members of the Rice faculty involved with MIRTHE are Robert Curl, University Professor Emeritus and the Kenneth S. Pitzer-Schlumberger Professor Emeritus of Chemistry; Rebekah Drezek, the Stanley C. Moore Assistant Professor in Bioengineering and in Electrical and Computer Engineering; Junichiro Kono and Daniel Mittleman, both associate professors in electrical and computer engineering; and Frank Tittel, the J.S. Abercrombie Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering.

The NSF has several interdisciplinary Engineering Research Centers located at universities across the U.S. The foundation has agreed to provide $15 million for MIRTHE over five years, with the possibility of renewal for another five years. Through additional funding from corporate partners and other sources, the center is expected to conduct more than $40 million in research and educational activities over 10 years.

Lynn Preston, deputy division director for centers at the NSF, said Engineering Research Centers like MIRTHE advance fundamental knowledge, a platform for technologies that spawn new U.S. industries and transform the industry and service sectors. “As multiple-institution partnerships, the centers foster collaboration among researchers from many disciplines,” she said.

About admin