In a new research, scientists are developing tiny sensors that could be used to detect and identify chemical or biological agents. The research effort is being led by Dr. Hai Xiao of Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Dr. Xiao, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, along with colleagues from Missouri S and T and the University of Cincinnati are using a porous crystal known as zeolite to develop the sensors.

Funded through a 529,160 dollars grant from the U.S. Army’s Leonard Wood Institute, the researchers are developing prototypes of the sensors, a process for manufacturing them and a means for deploying them in a battlefield or urban warfare situation.

The zeolite sensors would be deployed in the battlefield via “motes” developed by Dr. Xiao’s co-investigator, Dr. Jagannathan Sarangapani, the William A. Rutledge-Emerson Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering. These are small, battery-powered devices that would hold perhaps a dozen or so sensors and have the ability to communicate with one another via a wireless network. The motes could also be controlled remotely, allowing soldiers to maintain a safe distance from deadly chemicals.

While the sensors are designed to aid the military, Dr. Xiao thinks they may also have environmental benefits. In more concentrated quantities, the absorbent properties of zeolite may make it ideal for cleaning up environmental messes, such as a chemical spill. “It’s more like a sieve and has been used for molecular separations,” said Xiao. “But because of its large surface area, zeolite also acts as an absorbent for efficient collection of target samples from the environment,” he added.

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