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March 14th, 2010
Right now, there's no single device that meets U.S. defense and homeland security officials' desire for a hand-held sensor that can detect chemical, biological and nuclear materials without giving excessive false alarms or busting budgets.
But teams of American researchers are looking into ways to build multipurpose sensors based on new forms of carbon molecules. In the drive to build so-called chem-bio-rad nanosensors, nanotubes - carbon molecules coaxed to assemble into long tubes - are competing against flattened nanoribbons.
The research is being led by a joint effort of NASA and the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA)'s Technology Innovation Office.
Meyya Meyyappan, chief scientist for exploration technology at NASA's Ames Research Center in California, is building a postage-stamp-sized sensor chip based on nanotubes.
Because other sensors can detect parts per billion, Meyyappan spends a lot of time making the case for nanotubes. He notes that nanotube sensors require much less power than conventional technology, which means smaller batteries. They are also generally smaller than similar lab instruments.
"One advantage we have is that this is not a laboratory instrument. A lot of other sensors for nerve gas are bulky instruments, whereas ours will be a postage-stamp-sized chip with low power consumption," he said.
"Don't let anyone tell you nanotubes are expensive," he said. "Each sensor uses a nanogram of nanotubes. So, if you buy one gram, you can make a gazillion sensors. The price [of sensors] is not determined by nanotube cost."
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