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New Electronic ‘Nose’ to Sniff for Explosives

Researchers Say Device Will Be As Sensitive As A Bloodhound

Pradeep Kurup

11/16/2007
By For more information, contact media@uml.edu or 978-934-3224

A new electronic “nose” being developed by a group of UMass Lowell researchers will be able to detect and predict threats from explosives with high precision. This multidisciplinary collaborative effort, which recently received a three-year, $800,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, will develop and integrate novel sensor arrays based on different sensing principles with multisensor “data-fusion” techniques to detect traces of TNT and other explosives as tiny as one part per trillion, or even smaller. Such a system can mimic the keen olfactory ability of bloodhounds.

“Data fusion is a relatively new term that’s gaining popularity, but its concept is not a new one,” says Pradeep Kurup, a professor of civil and environmental engineering who is the project’s principal investigator. “The human brain is perhaps the best example of a data-fusion system. The brain fuses data ߝ sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch ߝ from multiple sensors ߝ eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin ߝ and uses its memory, experience, and a priori knowledge to make inferences about the external world.  For example, the sound of a voice combined with visual information, such as hair color or distinctive facial features, aids a person in recognizing an acquaintance.”

There are a number of explosives-detection systems currently available. However, they’re based on a single sensing principle. “For the first time, we’ll develop data-fusion algorithms and artificial neural network to interpret data from different types of detectors ߝ fluorescent polymer nanofibrous sensors, nanowire sensors and surface acoustic wave sensors ߝ that operate simultaneously,” says Kurup.

“By identifying coincidences in the predictions made by the different sensors, our ‘intelligent’ explosives-detection system will reduce uncertainties associated with the interpretation of data gathered by the individual sensing systems. This makes the overall detection system extremely precise, significantly lowering the incidence of false alarms.”

Kurup’s co-principal investigators include Profs. Zhiyong Gu (chemical engineering), Ramaswamy Nagarajan (plastics engineering), Hongwei Sun (mechanical engineering) and Jayant Kumar (physics).

The group’s project will have a global impact not only in the areas of law enforcement, defense and homeland security and counterterrorism, but also in environmental monitoring, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and medical diagnostics. For example, the electronic nose can be used in detecting subsurface soil contamination following a chemical spill, in safeguarding the handling and transportation of hazardous materials, in search-and-rescue operations, in testing for explosive or toxic gases in battlefields, coal mines and archeological sites, and much more.

“Our biggest challenge right now is for the electronic nose to be able to track a scent, say a gas leak, to its source,” says Kurup.

Researchers hope to come up with a product prototype by 2010. Partnerships with Massachusetts-based companies, such as Foster-Miller Inc. and Linden Photonics, will facilitate the technology’s transfer and commercialization.