Do butterflies hold the key to the next generation of chemical sensors? DARPA apparently thinks they might, and it's just awarded GE a $6.3 million grant to further develop a project that the company's research division began three years ago. That project was sparked by the discovery that the nanostructures from the wing scales of butterflies have acute chemical sensing properties, which GE has since been working to replicate in a sensing platform that could instantly detect a wide variety of chemical threats. What's more, GE says that it's sensors could eventually be made in "very small sizes, with low production costs," which would let them be used for everything from emissions monitoring at power plants to food and beverage safety monitoring at home. Full press release is after the break.
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GE Awarded $6.3 Million DARPA Grant to Develop New Bio-inspired Sensors

Replicating nanostructures from the wings of Morpho butterflies, GE's sensors would enable highly selective, near-instantaneous detection of chemical threats

GE's sensing platform could create other industrial and healthcare applications, including emissions monitoring at power plants, water purification and food safety testing and breath analysis for disease detection


August 12, 2010 03:11 PM Eastern Daylight Time
NISKAYUNA, N.Y.--(EON: Enhanced Online News)--Scientists at GE Global Research, GE's technology development arm, in collaboration with Air Force Research Laboratory, State University at Albany, and University of Exeter, have received a four-year, $6.3 million award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop new bio-inspired nanostructured sensors that would enable faster, more selective detection of dangerous warfare agents and explosives.

"GE's bio-inspired sensing platform could dramatically increase sensitivity, speed and accuracy for detecting dangerous chemical threats. 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."

Three years ago, GE scientists discovered that nanostructures from wing scales of butterflies exhibited acute chemical sensing properties. Since then, GE scientists have been developing a dynamic, new sensing platform that replicates these unique properties. Recognizing the potential of GE's sensing technologies for improving homeland protection, DARPA is supporting further research.

Radislav Potyrailo, a principal scientist at GE Global Research and principal investigator, said, "GE's bio-inspired sensing platform could dramatically increase sensitivity, speed and accuracy for detecting dangerous chemical threats. 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 GE's sensors can be made in very small sizes, with low production costs. This would allow large volumes of these sensors to be readily produced and deployed wherever needed. Unique sensing properties, combined with the size and production advantages offered by GE's bio-inspired sensors, could enable an array of other important industrial and healthcare 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

Potyrailo said, "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."

DARPA Program Manager Viktoria Greanya, Ph.D., 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. 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 world-class team of collaborators who are recognized experts in their fields. They include: Dr. Helen Ghiradella, from State 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 State University at Albany, specializing in advanced lithographic nanofabrication. These team members will complement GE's strong multidisciplinary team of analytical chemists, material scientists, polymer chemists, optical engineers and nanofabrication engineers who are contributing to development of this new platform.

About GE Global Research

GE Global Research is the hub of technology development for all of GE's businesses. Our scientists and engineers redefine what's possible, drive growth for our businesses and find answers to some of the world's toughest problems.

We innovate 24 hours a day, with sites in Niskayuna, New York; Bangalore, India; Shanghai, China; and Munich, Germany. Visit GE Global Research on the web at www.ge.com/research. Connect with our technologists at http://edisonsdesk.com and twitter.com/edisonsdesk.

About GE:

GE is a diversified global infrastructure, finance and media company that is built to meet essential world needs. From energy, water, transportation and health to access to money and information, GE serves customers in more than 100 countries and employs more than 300,000 people worldwide. For more information, visit the company's Web site at http://www.ge.com. GE is Imagination at Work.

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GE lands $6.3 million DARPA grant to develop 'bio-inspired' sensors