WMU nanosensor project could keep U.S. troops safer
September 5, 2006 - MiBiz

MiBiz Correspondent

KALAMAZOO - U.S. government defense spending is pushing cutting-edge technological advancements in Southwest Michigan.

One beneficiary of that new trend could be Western Michigan University. The school could receive $3 million from the federal government that would be split between organic light emitting receptor-based nanosensor research and the Center for Advanced Vehicle Design and Simulation (CAViDS).

The federal defense appropriations bill for fiscal year 2007, containing the two earmarked WMU projects, passed the Senate Appropriations Committee in late July and now awaits passage through the House before going to congressional conference committee.

According to Katie DeBoer, associate vice president for legislative affairs at WMU, the university is optimistic the $2 million for nanosensor research and the $1 million earmarked for the CAViDS program will survive the House bill and be fully funded after Congress reconvenes in the fall.

The money earmarked for nanosensor research would go toward the practical application of unique molecules developed in the WMU Chemistry Department's labs that change color and emit a high frequency sound when they come into contact with toxins or harmful biological elements.

The molecules, which glow when exposed to light, would allow early detection and measurement of a toxic nerve gas or biological weapons attack for military troops engaged in combat or to civilian populations.

"What we are trying to avoid is an attack similar to the Sarin gas disaster in the Tokyo subways," said Dr. Subra Murali, professor of chemistry at WMU and director of the nanosensor research program.

Nanosensors developed by WMU in conjunction with the Army Research Labs could be worn in small buttons attached to military uniforms, embedded in the paint of military vehicles, or attached to the sides of buildings and open air coliseums. Dr. Murali envisions a future where toxin nanosensors are as commonplace as carbon monoxide and smoke detectors.

He also stated the U.S. military is searching for ways these new nanosensors can be used to detect explosives used in the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) utilized by insurgents along the roadsides of Iraq and Afghanistan to destroy U.S. military vehicles.

The new nanosensors would be so small that they could be dropped in war zones directly, and remain completely invisible.

"The idea is to outsmart our enemies before they outsmart us," said Dr. Murali.

The goal for the research program is to eventually place nanosensors in all points of contact to the military and civilians, including in watersheds vulnerable to biological agents and open air public spaces.

It is important, said Dr. Murali, for the unique molecules in the nanosensors to change color, glow, and emit high frequency sound when in contact with harmful elements to give the sensors more than one mechanism for detection, thereby eliminating false positives or, more critically, false negatives.
Ideally, the Army would place wireless communicators in each nanosensor, giving remote capabilities and detection from a central base. There is also potential for nanosensors to be used for medical purposes in the future, said Dr. Murali, specifically for diabetics to monitor glucose in their bloodstream by using nanosensor patches.

The unique molecules used in the new nanosensors have been developed by WMU for the past five years and will remain the university's property.

The Center for Advanced Vehicle Design and Simulation program in WMU's College of Engineering and Applied Sciences is lined up to receive $1 million from the 2007 Defense Appropriations Bill.

The federal money would be used to purchase software and high-speed computers designed to simulate the effects of alterations in vehicle structure and changing landscapes on the reliability of military and commercial vehicles.

Dr. William Liou, professor in the Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering Department at WMU and director of the CAViDS program told MiBiz that traditionally, vehicle reliability has been calculated using historical data. Utilizing simulations would make the reliability calculations process more efficient.

"Our computer models using different platforms allow engineers to test vehicles quicker and be more confident in the results," Dr. Liou said.

One of the major uses of the simulation technology would be predicting the effect of additional armor used on military Humvees and cargo trucks to protect against IEDs in Iraq.

The CAViDS Center is also attempting to build a consortium of automobile industry manufacturers and suppliers geared toward applying vehicle research in Michigan.

"The consortium would be a way to pool resources, sharing the risk and the benefit of large projects, to keep knowledge-based jobs in the state," Dr. Liou said. "WMU is located geographically right in the heart of the industry. The vehicle research being done in this region has a shorter time coming to market because of all the suppliers located here, and all of our engineers are already familiar with the technology."

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