A researcher at Eastern Washington University (Cheney, WA), in collaboration with two Washington companies and Washington State University, is nearing completion of a project to develop equipment that detects airborne microbes that can be used in biological warfare and bioterrorism. Quantum Northwest, a laser technology and instrument prototyping firm in Spokane, is building the bioparticle sensing device that attaches to the main collector.
The equipment under development is designed to constantly sample the air and provide analysis within 30 minutes. Testing is expected to begin this winter on the equipment being developed through a university research initiative funded by the Office of Naval Research. The project is titled Photoacoustic Identification of Airborne Bioparticles.
Preliminary tests have all been encouraging, said principal project investigator Jeanne Small, a biophysicist and professor of chemistry & biochemistry at EWU. “Our challenge is to monitor the air and detect the presence of possible bioterrorist pathogens without using specialized test kits. We're using laser technologies to do this. We have been testing biological particles in the 1 to 10 micron range, as well as substances such as dirt and dust,” Small said.
Small emphasized that no anthrax or other harmful agents have been used in the research. Researchers have been working with simulants, the kind of bacteria that are so safe they are used in biology labs all across the country, including those in high schools.
When the components of the project are assembled, the resulting unit will constantly monitor the air and test it for the presence of biological agents, emitting an alarm if a biological agent is detected.
The unit, which weighs about 65 pounds and sounds like a vacuum cleaner when operating, can be used in open spaces or inside airports and mailrooms. Eventually, it is hoped that a smaller and quieter unit can be developed for use in the home in much the same way that smoke detectors are now used, Small said, adding that she intends to apply again to the military for additional funds to further her research.
InnovaTek, a commercial developer of innovative technologies in Richland, WA., built a bioaerosol collector independently under separate Army and Navy funding, and refined it to accommodate the sensor being developed under the EWU grant. InnovaTek's bioaerosol collector has performed very well at military test facilities and is being marketed for both military and civilian air sampling applications.
Quantum Northwest, a laser technology and instrument prototyping firm in Spokane, is building the bioparticle sensing device which attaches to the collector. Under direction from the Eastern Washington University researchers, Quantum Northwest is integrating a sample holder from its product line with specialty laser devices needed for the sensing technology. Quantum Northwest�s prototype is expected to be ready for testing with the bioaerosol collector in January.
Small, who secured the three-year $1.2 million Office of Naval Research grant two years ago, provided the photoacoustic science behind the integration of the InnovaTek and Quantum Northwest products. She noted that Rep. George Nethercutt of Spokane was instrumental in helping EWU secure the funding.
In the research, laser pulses were used to excite light-absorbing substances which release energy as heat. Heat-induced solvent expansion generated sound waves, which were measured by an ultrasonic transducer.
“Our research showed that common substances such as road dust and soot behaved differently than bacteria,” Small said. Other EWU personnel have actively worked on the project, including Louis Libertini, a senior scientist in chemistry-biochemistry (bacterial high-energy photoacoustics); Brenda McCracken and Tiffany Preston, research associates (bacterial photophysics); Haideh Lightfoot, professor of biology (microbiology); and two undergraduate students. Margaret Mortz, an associate professor of engineering at Washington State University Spokane, brought electrical engineering and signal processing expertise to the project. She and her graduate student examined the sound waves for patterns.
The project was initiated by the Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute, a technology alliance of business, industry, five institutions of higher education and government, designed to encourage economic growth through the transfer, application and commercialization of technology. SIRTI brought Small and Mortz together with InnovaTek and Quantum Northwest in 1999, encouraging Small to apply for the grant.
“When we began this in 1999, we were aware of potential threats of airborne pathogens, such as a scare about possible anthrax contamination at Spokane's Planned Parenthood that year,” Small said. “Little did we know that in the fall of 2001, possibilities that seemed so remote and distant only two years ago would be part of our every day reality now.”