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  • Bio-Inspired Sensors Nab $6M DARPA Grant
Aug 2010
NISKAYUNA, N.Y., Aug. 20, 2010 — Bio-inspired nanostructured sensors enabling faster, more selective chemical and explosives detection will be developed by a team comprising private industry, universities and government agencies under a new four-year, $6.3 million DARPA grant.

Three years ago, scientists at GE Global Research, GE's technology development arm, discovered that nanostructures from wing scales of butterflies exhibited acute chemical sensing properties. Since then, they have been developing a dynamic sensing platform that replicates these unique properties. Recognizing the potential of the work for improving homeland protection, DARPA is supporting further research. Collaborators on the project will include scientists from the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio; the University at Albany, State University of New York; and the University of Exeter in the UK.

A new concept for selective chemical detection using bio-inspired photonic nanostructures. This concept draws inspiration from the discovery that nanostructures on the wing scales of Morpho butterflies have acute chemical sensing capabilities. Besides enabling more acute chemical sensors for homeland security, the sensing platform could lead to other industrial and health care applications that include emissions monitoring at power plants and breath analysis for disease detection. (Image: Business Wire)

“GE’s bio-inspired sensing platform could dramatically increase sensitivity, speed and accuracy for detecting dangerous chemical threats,” said Radislav Potyrailo, principal investigator and a principal scientist at GE Global Research. “All of these factors are critical, not only from the standpoint of preventing exposure, but in monitoring an effective medical response if necessary to deal with such threats.”

Potyrailo noted that the sensors can be made in very small sizes, with low production costs, enabling large volumes of them to be readily produced and deployed wherever needed. The technology's unique sensing properties, combined with size and production advantages, could enable an array of other important industrial and health care applications, including: 

    •Emissions monitoring at power plants 
    •Food and beverage safety monitoring 
    •Water purification testing for home, environmental and industrial applications 
    •Breath analysis for disease detection 
    •Wound healing assessment

“Now, more than ever, sensors are being used to collect data on gas concentrations and to deliver important information about air conditions in localized regions or over large distributed areas. This information can range from warning of impending chemical or health threats to more precisely measuring air quality at a power plant. The unique sensing properties of GE’s bio-inspired sensors provide an opportunity to improve the quality of this sensing data and the ability to collect this data at previously unavailable levels of detail,” Potyrailo said.

“We have been greatly inspired by examples of naturally occurring optical structures whose properties arise from an intricate morphology. For example, the brilliant colors seen in butterfly wings, beetle carapaces and peacock feathers are due in large part to their complex structure, not simply their color,” said Viktoria Greanya, DARPA program manager. “DARPA’s goal in this program is to harness the best of nature’s own photonic structures and use advances in materials technology to create controllable photonic devices at visible and near-infrared wavelengths.”

For the DARPA project, GE has assembled a team of collaborators including: Dr. Helen M. Ghiradella, from the University at Albany, an expert on the biology of structural color; Dr. Peter Vukusic, from the University of Exeter, an expert on the physics of structural color; Dr. Rajesh Naik, from the Air Force Research Laboratory, with a strong background in bio-inspired functional materials and surface functionalization; and Dr. John Hartley, also from the University at Albany, specializing in advanced lithographic nanofabrication.

For more information, visit:

In image processing, the study of structure or form of objects in an image.
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