Tiny sensors can sniff out chemical and biological agents

Research to develop a new method to detect biological and chemical threats may also lead to new approaches for removing pollutants from the environment.

The research effort, led by Dr. Hai Xiao of the Missouri University of Science and Technology, involves the development of tiny sensors — each about the size of a pinhead — that could be used to detect and identify chemical or biological agents.

Xiao, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, along with colleagues from Missouri S&T and the University of Cincinnati are using a porous crystal known as zeolite to develop the sensors.

Zeolite's molecular structure and unusual properties allow it to detect certain chemicals and trap them, Xiao says.

Funded through a $529,160 grant from the U.S. Army's Leonard Wood Institute, the researchers are developing prototypes of the sensors, a process for manufacturing them and a means for deploying them in a battlefield or urban warfare situation.

The zeolite sensors would be deployed in the battlefield via "motes" developed by Xiao's co-investigator, Dr. Jagannathan Sarangapani. These are small, battery-powered devices that would hold perhaps a dozen or so sensors and have the ability to communicate with one another via a wireless network. The motes could also be controlled remotely, allowing soldiers to maintain a safe distance from deadly chemicals.