Science and Technology News

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Sensors on Scan

One of the things I like most about science fiction are the gadgets.

Those cool little devices that make life for us mere mortals so much easier.  From lightsabers to sonic screwdrivers and tractor beams to transporters, the SciFi verse is filled with the convenience of beautiful, impressive, but unfortunately fictitious technology.

I’m sorry, did I say fictitious?  I meant FOR REAL.

Yes that’s right.  One really amazing type of science fiction technology is being actualized right now at the Naval Research Laboratory.  One that could change the way we deal with many different types of situations, and could even go so far as to save lives.  So which one of the amazing futuristic inventions is coming to the real world?

No really, The Naval Research Laboratory has essentially created a technology that will allow us to scan an area and determine what’s in it…And it’s small enough that it could potentially fit on your smart phone.  If you’re not impressed yet just wait until you find out the science behind how this thing actually works.

The technology is called SiN-VAPOR, which stands for silicon nanowire vertical array with a porous electrode.  So what does that mean, exactly?

“That means that we have a sensor about the size of a quarter that can detect very low concentrations of analytes in the vapor phase,” explains Dr. Chris Field, a research chemist at NRL, and also a part of what I’m calling the tricorder team.  “So an example would be that we can detect down to the tenth PPB, or parts per billion range.  So to define what that is, we’re able to detect from the background, ten molecules of one analyte versus a billion of other molecules that may be in the same environment.”

The end product is something quite similar to a Star Trek tricorder, Dr. Field goes on to say, in that someone could walk into a room and be able to determine everything that’s in the vapor phase.  So if there’s a carbon monoxide leak, as an example.  If there is an elevated level of oxygen.  If there is something that’s burning.  If a perfume released in a room.  The SiN-VAPOR would be able to detect that.

And that’s only a few of the things this sensor has the potential to do.

“Another example would be similar to like a breathalyzer, only we would be able to detect pretty much anything from what you had for breakfast this morning all the way down to lung cancer,” says Dr. Field.

Which makes this device both incredible and versatile.  Being able to scan what the human eye cannot see is something that could not only prevent bad breath but also help save lives.  It’s also rather compact.  And by that I mean really, really small.

“The current sensor is about the size of a quarter, and within that quarter or about that size we have over a billion nanowires in that surface,” Dr. Field explains as he holds the tiny tricorder chip in the palm of his hand.  “Each wire is a sensor, so we essentially have a billion sensors on the size of a quarter.  The final form factor for the sensor, or the final product from this research will hopefully be something that can fit onto a cell phone.  Cell phones are ubiquitous in the world these days and we would love to have our sensors on every cell phone in the world.”

Talk about convenient.  I could have my music, my apps, my contacts and my scanner on my phone?  Well I’m sold.  But Dr. Field doesn’t want to stop with the cell phone.  Indeed, NRL has some bigger (and might I add convenient) plans for their vapor scanner.  Something that could change the way we travel.

In a good way.

“Another application [of this technology] would be to take that sensor and apply it to checkpoints or security so that you would never have to wait in line anymore at the airport.  So imagine the airport itself is an entire checkpoint.  So there are these small tiny vapor sensors distributed throughout the entire airport and they work together with wireless communication to map out what different vapors are in the environment.”

This basically means that there could be a future where we no longer have to wait in long security lines and take our shoes off at the airport.

These sensors could basically work around the clock, silently and painlessly scanning the crowds, on the prowl for dangerous materials.  It seems like a more attractive option than the hop-on-one-foot-to-put -shoes-back-on dance that happens now.  Not to mention more effective.

The SiN-VAPOR technology is also something that could help first responders, firefighters, and medical professionals by serving as a preventative measure.  Especially in places where prevention is the first line of defense.  Like in a crisis.

“We portray this as something that improves situational awareness,” Dr. Field explains.  “Okay, let’s say there is a fire on a Navy ship. So if our sensors are on a micro-fliers or on a robot designed to automate firefighting capabilities, you would send in the micro-fliers first as a first responder to show you know what’s going on in the room, where is the fire at, what vapors are being released, is it in a room that has other things we need to be concerned about, and then relay that information back to the central supervisory control system or on top the robot itself.  So before they open that hatch, before they enter that room, they know what’s going on inside.”

Imagine the benefits something like this could have for the military.  Searching for roadside bombs, determining threats in hidden areas, looking for hazardous materials; these are all pretty dangerous things that many service members do on a daily basis.  A device like this could keep troops safer while still allowing them to complete their mission…Only from a safer scanning distance.

This sensor can also be made for less than a dollar a piece, and uses less than a microwatt of power, so it won’t break the bank or drain the battery.  Now that’s what I call efficient technology.  Spock would be so proud.

So what science fiction shows does Dr. Field enjoy/is inspired by when he’s not busy turning science fiction into science fact?

“[It’s] a toss-up between Firefly and Battlestar Galactica – the rebooted series.  Those two – I could watch any of those episodes (with an exception of a couple of Battlestar Galactica episodes) multiple times.”

Me too, Dr. Field.  Me too.

Want to know more about this incredible technology?  Click here!

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.

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