June R&D Round-Up

E-mail Melanie Martella

This month, printed blast dosimeters, a new magnetic sensor, a biosensor that could be mass-produced, and a kayak that can be operated by a quadriplegic.

Early Warning for Traumatic Brain Injuries
A DARPA-funded project is afoot to create printed, disposable blast dosimeters that can be applied to a soldier's helmet or uniform to collect data on any explosive blasts he or she may be exposed to. Because the signature wound of the Iraq war is traumatic brain injury (TBI), it makes sense to collect as much data as possible about the blasts experienced by military personnel there. Palo Alto Research Center will be developing the wearable electronic tape. For more information and background, I refer you to the PARC press release "PARC to Develop Sensor Tape Technology to Track Exposure to Explosive Blasts". The combination of printable electronics for cheap, disposable sensors may open up monitoring applications well beyond the more urgent one of assessing the types of explosive concussions warfighters are exposed to.

New Magnetic Sensor
Researchers at Germany's Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits (IIS) have created a new, highly sensitive 3D magnetic field sensor. The device can detect very small fluctuations in the magnetic field, even when there's a strong magnet nearby. According to team lead Dr. Hans-Peter Hohe (quoted in the article in TheCheers.org), the sensors do not require shielding, which is a drawback to current magnetic sensors. He says, "This sensor enables us for the first time to identify magnetic interference fields as such and to separate them from the useful field. The sensor works perfectly even when the interference field is considerably larger than the useful field. There is therefore no need for shielding." I'll be interested to see how quickly this sensor technology is commercialized.

Mass Produced Biosensor?
Boffins at NASA's Ames Research Center may have figured out how to mass produce biosensors. They've used semiconductor processing techniques to manufacture carbon nanofiber-based biosensors that can detect up to 25 different microorganisms quickly and simultaneously. Rather than using carbon nanotubes (which have excellent sensing properties but are hard to wrangle), the researchers grew carbon nanofibers—exactly where and how they wanted them—on a silicon substrate. According to Mark Reed, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics at Yale, quoted in MIT Technology Review's article "A Tiny Sensor Simply Made", "The real challenge to making electronic-based biosensors into products is not which material performs the best, but how they will be mass-produced." Oh, so true.

A Quadriplegic-Operated Kayak
And, finally, Professor Kevin Taylor and Mechanical Engineering Professor Frank Owen from California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, teamed up to create an adaptive kayak that could be operated by a quadriplegic. Funded by a grant from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Foundation, the collaborative project involved both kinesiology and engineering students. The kayak, outfitted with a small motor and controlled via a digital "straw" connected to a sensor system, allows the kayaker to puff or sip on the straw to control the kayak. The craft successfully completed its maiden voyage on May 16. Read more about it here.