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Princeton Weekly Bulletin   January 8, 2007, Vol. 96, No. 13   prev   next   current

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  • Editor: Ruth Stevens

    Calendar editor: Shani Hilton

    Staff writers: Jennifer Greenstein Altmann, Eric Quiñones

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By the numbers

Research project seeks big impact for tiny measurements

Princeton NJ — A University-based research center is developing sensor technologies that could revolutionize medical diagnostics, shed light on environmental problems and improve homeland security.

In the six months since the National Science Foundation funded the center, called Mid-Infrared Technologies for Health and the Environment (MIRTHE), 40 faculty members and 60 students from six institutions have begun work on more than 20 collaborative research projects.

The researchers are using a new type of laser that emits mid-infrared light to “see” previously invisible substances in the atmosphere and in human breath, including greenhouse gases and substances that indicate disease. Mid-infrared sensors can detect chemicals at the level of just one part per billion, or even trillion. One potential use could be devices that instantly and non-invasively test for illnesses, including cancer and heart disease.

• Center director Claire Gmachl, associate professor of electrical engineering, was awarded a $500,000 MacArthur “genius grant” in 2005 for her work on the mid-infrared light sources, called quantum cascade lasers.

• MIRTHE unites scientists and engineers from six member institutions — Princeton, Texas A&M University, Rice University, Johns Hopkins University, the City College of New York and the University of Maryland-Baltimore County — with colleagues in industry, government laboratories and nonprofit organizations.

• The National Science Foundation contributed $2.97 million for the center’s inaugural year, which could grow to more than $40 million over the next decade. Since it began, the center has raised more than $300,000 additionally in cash and in-kind donations.

• On July 11, 2006, more than 60 representatives from 35 companies, nonprofit organizations and government laboratories came to Princeton to participate in a “roadmapping” exercise to identify goals for MIRTHE.

• Nine companies and one national laboratory have joined MIRTHE, and additional memberships are in the works. These partnerships will help the center develop the most needed and effective uses for the new technology.

• Undergraduate and graduate students in the “MIRTHE Academy” participate in research projects and exchange programs between the member universities. For example, students working with James Smith, Princeton professor of civil and environmental engineering, will use a new 20-foot-tall sensor station to measure carbon dioxide, water vapor and nitrogen compounds. Data generated by the team, which includes researchers from Princeton, Rice and UMBC, could advance efforts to understand and mitigate global environmental change.


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