WMU News

WMU gets $2 million for nanotech research

Oct. 9, 2004

KALAMAZOO--A new grant from the U.S. Department of Energy will put $2 million in new funding into Western Michigan University nanotechnology research aimed at improving national security.

The grant will support two years of continued research on a project that focuses on "Design, Synthesis and Characterization of Nanosensors for Chemical, Biological and Radiological Agents." The initiative, which began last year with a $950,000 grant from DOE, is directed by Dr. Subra Muralidharan, who heads WMU's Nanotechnology Research and Computation Center. The funded initiative is a collaborative effort that involves Altair Nanomaterials of Reno, Nev., and the University of Nevada-Reno.

The new funding will be used to continue development of nanosensors that could be used to detect chemical, biological and radiological weapons deployed against civilian populations or in military situations. They could include particles released by a "dirty bomb" or deadly nerve toxins such as sarin.

If successful, Muralidharan says, such sensors could be embedded in uniform fabric or the paint on military vehicles. When exposed to the substance they were designed to detect, the sensors could alert either an individual or a central control center.

The challenges come, he says, from trying to design the nanosensors so that they can detect very small quantities of what he calls "agents of terror" in vast open areas, in water systems and in groundwater. At the same time, they must be capable of adapting to changing temperature and humidity levels as well as wind, dust and other environmental factors. The nanosensors must be able to capture, concentrate and measure the levels of the target toxins and provide a signal that is measurable, such as a digital or audio signal or a change in color.

"These are formidable challenges, but nanosensors have much greater potential for meeting them than conventional approaches," Muralidharan says. "We're grateful for the opportunity to develop this technology. We had tremendous support from Congressman Fred Upton in pursuing this critical funding."

Altair has proprietary rights on titanium dioxide nanoparticles that exhibit the ability to maintain their integrity in extreme environments, according to Muralidharan. The particles are being melded with technology developed at WMU to build nanosensors that meet the demands of the project and can be applied in a wide array of settings.

WMU's Nanotechnology Research and Computation Center was established in 2002. The focus of its multidisciplinary team of researchers is nanobioenvironmental chemistry. Researchers with the center have gained the support of such funding organizations as Pfizer Corp., Argonne National Laboratory, the Michigan Life Sciences Corridor and the Keck Foundation. With the help of the latter, the center recently established a state-of-the-art Keck Nanotechnology Laboratory. In addition to research, the center has developed graduate-level nanotechnology courses and will soon introduce such course work at the undergraduate level.

Media contact: Cheryl Roland, 269 387-8400, cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

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