February 19, 2010

‘Electronic nose’ a finalist in research contest

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill -- A team of researchers at Southern Illinois University Carbondale is among the finalists in a national competition seeking innovative ideas from graduate students aimed at addressing the world’s needs for energy and security.

The team is comprised of Andrei Kolmakov, assistant professor in the Department of Physics in the SIUC College of Science; Victor Sysoev, a former visiting Fulbright Scholar from Saratov State Technical University, and graduate student Evheni Stlecov. Together they have worked on the so-called electronic “nano nose” technology, which uses tiny metal oxide nanowires to create extremely sensitive sensors that can “sniff” out chemicals in an environment.

Stlecov, the graduate student who co-authored a major paper on the technology along with Kolmakov and Sysoev, submitted the work to Global Venture Challenge 2010, a contest based at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Judges recently placed the electronic nose technology among the 22 finalists competing for cash prizes of up to $25,000 next month at the Tennessee facility.

Stlecov compared the success so far to planting a tree that bears fruit for society.

“Participation in Global Venture Challenge not only broadens my acumen, gives opportunity of exposure to our lab and strengthens achievements of SIUC, but it also provides the means by which our product can be brought to market and empower homeland security to the benefit of all American society,” he said. “I am glad and honored to be a part of this undertaking.”

In the electronic nose, the tiny nano-scale wires stand in for the biological smell detector cells present in a mammal’s nose. Because of their tiny size and chemical reactivity, nanowires can detect extremely small concentrations of chemicals in the parts-per-billion range. Sensors based on this technology also are extremely stable and power efficient.

When assembled in arrays of sensors and coordinated by software, such sensors can form a sort of electronic nose that can send detailed information about the environment. Applications might include very small, power-efficient sensors that can send doctors real-time information about a patient’s blood glucose level, for example, or lead to improved radio frequency identification tags -- often used in the retail sales industry, but with many other potential applications -- that can sniff the air for explosives or other chemicals.

Kolmakov said he is proud of the team’s achievement.

“For me as a teacher and researcher it is great news since it exposes a young talented student to the wider scientific and industrial community and it also demonstrates that we are doing the right stuff scientifically,” he said.

The contest, set for March 25-26, will feature new technology in energy and security divisions. With the electronic nose’s potential as a potent bomb-sniffer, for example, SIUC is entered in the Community Resilience and Homeland Security Showcase. That division highlights technologies that enhance the ability of communities to rapidly recover from natural and man-made disasters. Topic areas include hurricane and flood prevention, cyber security, disaster incident management, critical infrastructure and key resources protection and resilient housing and rapid housing restoration among others.

Global Venture Challenge also will provide participants with an opportunity to network with entrepreneurs, investors, business people and researcher, organizers say.

The contest began at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 2007 under the name Nano Nexus. It was cast as an innovation summit, offering the research students and business leaders a chance to talk with investors, educators and industry leaders about developing technologies. The contest remains focused on commercializing new technologies and helping launch entrepreneurial ventures.

First prize is $25,000, second is $10,000, third is $5,000 and honorable mention is $1,000.