by Joe Wilhelm Jr.
As the debate over global warming continues, a local university is developing equipment to help provide information on the Earth’s atmosphere.
University of North Florida Professor Nirmalkumar Patel, along with UNF students, developed nanocrystalline gas sensor arrays for detecting gases in the stratosphere and mesosphere with the help of funding from the NASA Florida Space Grant Consortium. The equipment was loaded onto a rocket in June at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility at Goddard Space Flight Center in Virginia. The payload sampled air at different points as it traveled through the mesosphere, a layer of the Earth’s atmosphere about 31 miles above the surface of the Earth.
“We were the only school from Florida to participate in a NASA launch this year,” said Patel. “We had a successful launch and recovery and we are processing the data now. The project exposed students to the technology, allowed them to assist in the development and replication of payload for space applications, and test sensor technology on a space vehicle in a real time atmosphere.”
Patel and UNF students were able to participate in the launch with the help of a government funding source. The NASA Florida Space Grant Consortium was established in 1989 and is a statewide network of 52 colleges and universities supporting the expansion and diversification of Florida’s space industry through grants, scholarships, and fellowships to students and educators from Florida’s public and private institutes of higher education. The recipients of these grants included eight Florida universities: the University of North Florida, Florida State University, University of Florida, University of Central Florida, Florida Institute of Technology, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, Florida Gulf Coast University, Florida International University, and two additional Florida educational entities — The Astronaut Memorial Foundation’s Teacher Connect program and the Jacksonville based Tekna-Theos group.
The launch was a significant advancement of UNF’s program, but they don’t plan to stop with space applications.
“The thin nanocrystalline film layer gives us the ability of being ultra sensitive,” said David Hayes, director of Coggin Pilot Program for Innovation at UNF. “We can be in the parts per billion sensitive.”
For example, one person may be able to smell a pepperoni pizza, but the person with the ultra-sensitive sense of smell would also be able to determine which butcher shop the pepperoni came from.
Additional applications for the technology include government-detecting explosives and harmful gases; agricultural-letting farmers know if they are under or over-fertilizing; manufacturing-for example, carbon monoxide monitoring inside the Anheuser-Busch brewery; and health-monitoring public water quality.
“As an institution of higher learning, it’s our job to do research,” said Hayes, “but it is also our job to then have that research transform into products that meet the needs of society.”
Sensor technology research began at UNF in the early 1970s, but the push to match a commercial partner with the research product has just recently begun. Hayes, along with UNF’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs and students, have begun working on the commercialization aspect of the research program.
“We’ve set up a process to improve our ability to attract potential partners,” said Hayes. “Our goal is to have a few partnerships in place by next spring. This is not a new process for universities.
Gatorade came from research into commercialization, it’s just not been a formalized approach at UNF.”