August 31, 2009

SIUC licenses explosive detection technology

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A new technology developed at Southern Illinois University Carbondale will supercharge an explosives detection device built by an Oklahoma-based company.

ICx Nomadics Inc., of Stillwater, Okla., a business unit of ICx Tcchnologies, has licensed organic-based nanowire technology developed by Ling Zang, a former associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at SIUC. The technology uses naturally occurring fluorescent characteristics to indicate the presence of extremely small quantities of molecules given off by explosives.

Jeff Myers, senior technology transfer specialist at SIUC, said the University recently inked a deal with the company, giving ICx Nomadics exclusive license to use the technology in its explosives detection equipment. In return, the University gets a substantial license execution fee, a share of the sales and annual license renewal fees for the life of the deal.

“What Dr. Zang developed at SIUC are nano-scale fibers that are extremely sensitive to explosives,” Myers said. “This is an established company, with products on the market. The technology makes the product better. This is a good fit for everyone.”

Zang, now at the University of Utah, said SIUC’s support helped him develop the idea as well as find a partner for its use in the field.

“Jeff Myers and his team helped us a lot in the whole process all the way from the provisional patent filing to the last step of licensing negotiation,” Zang said. “During the same time, we also got encouragement and advice from (Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Dean) John Koropchak at both the administration leadership and personal mentorship level, really appreciated.

“Lastly, working at SIUC, particularly the chemistry and biochemistry department, remains one of the most precious times in my life, which was indeed a critical turning point for my academic career, not only just referring to the success tenure,but more important the fact that the open, dynamic academic environment -- dominated by both the cohesive faculty and strong chairship -- allowed us to succeed in the basic research, and pursue further from there for potential technology development and transfer.”

While at SIUC, Zang earned a coveted five-year, $592,000 CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation to explore his work on fabricating organic-based nanowires. His work focused on developing extremely sensitive devices based on nanotechnology, which involves materials that are about one-billionth of a meter in size.

Zang developed tiny threads made of molecules built in specific geometries. The small physical size allows the fibers to act as a super-fine filter that can catch single molecules from explosives such as TNT. If TNT is in the area, Zang's nanowires can “smell” it.

For instance, a landmine buried beneath soil emits about 40 parts of TNT per trillion into the atmosphere. Zang discovered the materials he fabricated at SIUC could detect levels below 10 ppt.

The detection happens when a TNT molecule lands on the matrix of nanowires and "quenches" its inherent fluorescent characteristics, which can in turn be detected by the electronics package with which it is mated.

Zang collaborated on the research with an organic chemist, Jeff Moore, at the University of Illinois, who creates specially functionalized molecules.

Along with the financial and scientific rewards for the research, SIUC also reaps educational rewards in the form of valuable experience for Zang’s former graduate student, Tammene Naddo. Naddo spent time with the company working on “scaling up” the technology from laboratory to product application.

ICx Nomadics Inc. develops homeland security, national defense and life science technologies. The company focuses on sensing and instrumentation, advanced materials and nanotechnology.

“ICx Technologies has pioneered the use of fluorescence-based sensing materials for the ultra-sensitive detection of important analytes such as explosives. Professor Zang’s promising new materials are an excellent complement to our existing, GSA-listed detection platforms, the Fido XT and the Fido PaxPoint,” said Aimee Rose, a senior research scientist at ICx Technologies. “SIUC has demonstrated the ability to control the nanostructure of these self-assembled materials and this opens up new areas for optimization of detection capabilities by enabling more precise control of the nanoscale processes underlying their sensitivity to explosives.”

Since 2001, SIUC's technology transfer program has processed more than 140 invention disclosures, filed 89 patents, and licensed 45 inventions. In addition, SIUC inventions have helped establish six start-up companies.