May 31, 1999 ROLLA, Mo. -- Scientists from the University of Missouri-Rolla's Center for Environmental Science and Technology (CEST) are taking a close look at the environment, and it looks like their research -- which is focused on sub-micron particles -- is going to make a big impact on the way people monitor air quality.
Drs. Phil Whitefield, Donald Hagen, Shubhender Kapila and Paul Nam are developing a device that can be programmed to monitor particles in almost any environment. The invention analyzes breathable particles, some as small as 10 nanometers in diameter, and provides information about their chemical composition. Such a device might soon be used in the workplace to warn employees about potentially harmful environmental conditions. Similarly, soldiers on the battlefield might use the invention to constantly monitor the air for the presence of dangerous chemical and biological agents. According to the researchers, versions of their device could become as common as household smoke detectors.
The research team, which includes Deposition Research Laboratory Inc. (DLRI) of St. Charles, Mo., has already been able to sell some people in high places on the merits of the invention. State and federal agencies, including the U.S. Air Force and NASA, are already on board in support of the research. Thus far, more than a million dollars has been raised to promote the further development and implementation of the device. Forays into the commercial prospects for the invention are expected to follow.
"We could see in discussions with people that there was a real need to look at the compositions of these particles," Kapila says, citing increasing Environmental Protection Agency concerns about ultra-fine particles, overall air quality and public welfare. "The chemistry was the big unknown, and that's what we're addressing."
Whitefield and Hagen developed the capability to monitor the concentration, size and growth properties of microscopic particles while conducting research on the exhaust of jet engines and rocket motors over the past six years. In 1997, they studied the exhaust plume of the Space Shuttle Columbia. By teaming with Drs. Kapila and Nam, the UMR professors have extended their research capabilities to include real-time chemical analysis of particles.
The Air Force, which is the primary sponsor of the latest research, is interested in the new technology as a diagnostic tool. Using the device conceived at UMR, the Air Force plans to monitor the particles that are emitted by jet engines, a capability which would make it possible to maximize engine efficiency and, at the same time, make the emissions environmentally compatible.
The development process officially started when the UMR scientists teamed up with Deposition Research Laboratory to secure an $80,000 Small Business Innovative Research Program (SBIR) award in May of 1998. The researchers were then given six to eight months to demonstrate the feasibility of their design and to propose a commercial strategy as phase one of their project.
The process quickly moved to phase two, during which the Air Force agreed to fund the project up to the amount of $750,000. In addition, the UMR Division of Academic Affairs, CEST, the Missouri Department of Economic Development, the Varian Corporation and NASA have agreed to match the Air Force's investment. Total funding for the particle research is approaching $1.5 million.
"This tool is of critical importance when it comes to control of the environment," says Whitefield, "which is why it has state, federal and private backing."
The researchers are calling their technological invention Particle Matter Chemical Characterization and Monitoring System, PMCMS for short. Whitefield, Hagen, Kapila and Nam (along with DLRI) are now set to build three PMCMS prototypes, one each for the Air Force, NASA and UMR. That will take two years, according to Kapila. In the meantime, the team will be thinking about phase three, which includes building devices as a commercial venture. A typical PMCMS should be about the size of a filing cabinet -- although they could be customized to monitor conditions in almost any environment.
"These devices can be simplified to be more user-friendly," Hagen says. "This is a very sensitive, very versatile tool when it comes to measuring environmental concerns."
Whitefield adds that a pre-prototype is already scheduled for field deployment during the initial stages of the process in order to realize advantages of the technology while it's being developed. DLRI's primary role, according to Steve Chelli, president, is to master the final assembly and marketing of the device.
In addition to their work related to the space shuttle, Whitefield and Hagen are internationally recognized for their research into the exhaust plumes of commercial jets. Kapila, who joined the group when he came to UMR in 1992, is internationally recognized for his research into land mine recovery as well as his work with ultra-trace separations related to environmental concerns.
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