Princeton selected as home for NSF center on sensor technology
Princeton NJ — The National Science Foundation has funded a large, multi-institutional engineering research center based at Princeton that is expected to revolutionize sensor technology, yielding devices that have a unique ability to detect minute amounts of chemicals found in the atmosphere, emitted from factories or exhaled in human breath.
The goal of the research is to produce devices that are so low in cost and easy to use that they transform aspects of the way doctors care for patients, local agencies monitor air quality, governments guard against attack and scientists understand the evolution of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
The center — dubbed MIRTHE, for Mid-Infrared Technologies for Health and the Environment — will combine the work of about 40 faculty members, 30 graduate students and 30 undergraduates from the six universities.
Core partner institutions with Princeton are the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, Rice University, Johns Hopkins University, Texas A&M University and the City College of New York. Funding for the center, which is expected to include industrial support in addition to the NSF funding, could exceed $40 million over 10 years. NSF funding started May 1 with $2.97 million for the first year. At Princeton, the center will be part of the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials.
The center — dubbed MIRTHE, for Mid-Infrared Technologies for Health and the Environment — will combine the work of about 40 faculty members, 30 graduate students and 30 undergraduates from the six universities. The center also is collaborating with dozens of industrial partners to turn the technology into commercial products, and is working with several educational outreach partners, which will use MIRTHE’s research as a vehicle for improving science and engineering education.
The work of the center will span from fundamental science to applied technology. At Johns Hopkins University, for example, scientists are using technology created at Princeton and elsewhere to develop devices that allow doctors to diagnose and monitor diseases, including kidney and liver disorders, by measuring chemicals in a patient’s breath. Other MIRTHE participants will explore sensors that monitor air quality or detect chemical weapons.
“The sensors we are creating will be portable and easy to use,” said Claire Gmachl, associate professor of electrical engineering at Princeton and the center’s director. “Today’s state-of-the-art sensors are very sensitive, but require an expert to operate and are bulky and expensive. MIRTHE’s vision is to make sensors with the same or better level of sensitivity at a fraction of the size and cost.”
A key technology enabling the center’s work is the quantum cascade laser, which is named for the way the electrons “cascade” through thin layers of material stacked within the device. Gmachl is a pioneer in creating quantum cascade lasers and is a recipient of a 2005 MacArthur “genius grant” in recognition of that work.
The major advantage of quantum cascade lasers is that they emit light in regions of the spectrum known as the mid-infrared. The ability to produce and detect these wavelengths allows scientists to “see” certain chemicals in the same way that sunlight and the human eye reveal everyday objects.
“When viewed in the mid-infrared, the world is alive with chemicals like ammonia, carbon, methane, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and benzene,” said Matthew Fraser, associate director of the center and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University. “The ability to detect or monitor these gases with a high degree of sensitivity provides important information about the processes that produced them.”
A key mission of MIRTHE is to help ensure a competitive U.S. work force by educating a new generation of technologically savvy leaders who carry forward the center’s knowledge to industry, government and academia. The center will incorporate extensive efforts to engage college and K-12 students in hands-on science and engineering projects, with major outreach programs taking place at the City College of New York, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and Princeton.
MIRTHE’s Student Leadership Council, headed by Princeton graduate student Afusat Dirisu, will organize student involvement in the center by planning a series of talks and establishing exchange programs between groups. “The many universities and industry partners behind MIRTHE are definitely a big plus for students because they will give us many opportunities to explore,” said Dirisu.
Vincent Poor, the incoming dean of engineering at Princeton, echoed this theme. “Collaborations that transcend individual departments and institutions are the wave of the future,” Poor said. “Bringing together people of diverse expertise to work on important and very complex problems creates a highly effective environment for research. It’s also the best way to educate students for leadership in an increasingly technological world.
“The selection process for NSF engineering research centers is extremely competitive,” Poor added. “Claire and her team are to be congratulated on their success in bringing this activity to Princeton. Not only will MIRTHE bring considerable resources and visibility to the University, but the center will allow us to further attract other top researchers and students in this very important area of science and technology.”
Stewart Smith, chair of the University Research Board at Princeton, said that MIRTHE is a formidable collaboration. “This is a very exciting, creative, innovative program that Claire and her colleagues have put together,” he said. “MIRTHE serves a lot of communities and connects some of Princeton’s great strengths with the strengths of the other universities involved.”
MIRTHE is a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center, one of about 15 interdisciplinary centers located at universities across the United States. The centers are among the foundation’s largest and most prestigious grants. The NSF has agreed to provide $15 million in funding over five years, with the possibility of renewal for another five years. Through additional funding from corporate partners and other sources, the center is expected to conduct more than $40 million in research and educational activities over 10 years.