Bioterrorism opens opportunities for optical technologies

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary Michael Chertoff reiterated his plans to put a higher priority on bioterrorism, mass transit safety, and border security in a speech just after the London bombings.

WASHINGTON, DC - Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary Michael Chertoff reiterated his plans to put a higher priority on bioterrorism, mass transit safety, and border security in a speech just after the London bombings. The overhaul was applauded by Universal Detection Technology (UDT; Beverly Hills, CA), which is cooperating with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s; Washington, DC) Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL; Pasadena, CA) to develop optical detection technologies that combat bioterrorism.

Described as a bioterrorism “smoke” detector, the combination of JPL’s bacterial spore detection technology and UDT’s aerosol capture device was originally designed for NASA to detect bacterial spores as an indicator species for sterility on spacecraft. The system, which breathes slightly faster than a human being, continually samples the air and uses a microwave to “pop” the spores, which then release a chemical unique to bacterial spores called dipicolinic acid. This acid interacts with a sensor chemical that triggers an intense green luminescence under ultraviolet (UV) radiation. An alarm is sounded in half the time it takes for a human to acquire a lethal dose of spores, thus serving as an early warning system.

“The spore detection technology that UDT licensed from JPL is a great example of a product that came out of research related to the Mars Rover project and other space exploration activities-although it’s unfortunate that its application to bioterrorism detection has become so prevalent in our time,” notes Amir Ettehadieh, director of R&D for UDT.

Although a price tag of $85,000 per unit and $5000 to $7000 per year in consumables may seem high for the UDT system, the US post office is testing a competing Biohazard Detection System that uses a polymerase chain reaction method for detection-at a cost of $799 million initially for 1700 systems in 282 facilities, with recurring operating costs of $100 million per year, according to Ettehadieh. The UDT anthrax-detection system was introduced in late 2004 and is beginning to be installed in domestic and international locations.

Another example of optical space-related research that is finding application in domestic bioterrorism is the laser-based gas sensor platform for chemical analysis being developed at Rice University (Houston, TX). By leveraging digital signal processor (DSP)-based controllers supplied by Texas Instruments (Dallas, TX) and by using tunable diode laser absorption spectroscopy, Rice scientists are able to develop more compact, rugged and lower-cost laser sensors for high-speed, high-precision trace gas detection.

Frank Tittel, professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice University and team leader for development of the DSP-based gas sensor technology, estimates an end-user sales price of $4000 to $6000 for the sensor when produced in volume, compared to the whopping $10,000 to $40,000 price of current non-optical and optical gas detection instrumentation such as bulky gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy systems.

“A new spectroscopic technique that we are developing, quartz-enhanced photoacoustic spectroscopy, is immune to acoustic noise and doesn’t require expensive wavelength-selective detectors,” Tittel says. “We are midway through a three-year contract with NASA/JPL on the detection of 10 different gases. While the contract was specifically for trace-gas detection for the International Space Station, we are also pursuing applications in environmental monitoring, medical breath analysis and of course, bioterrorism and explosives detection.”
- Gail Overton

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