It’s the size of a granule of fine sugar, but it has vast application.
NAU professor Tim Porter, chairman of the Physics and Astronomy department, is focused on developing technology with broad, marketable applications in the biotechnology arena. One such product is a near-invisible sensor with defense, environmental and medical applications.
The sensor is literally a speck even to the keen eye: 200 x 50 microns.
Working with a $729,000 grant from the U.S. Army, Porter and a team of undergraduate and graduate students have developed a sensing device that when implanted in the mouth can detect hydration levels in soldiers. It can also monitor toxins and, used in a hand-held device, could be used to detect nerve agents.
The grant from the Army, called a Small Business Innovative Research Grant, is specifically geared to projects with business applications.
There are other uses for the technology. Under the auspices of the Department of Energy, the sensor also has environmental applications; it will be used in a hand-held monitor to track the presence of desert tortoises 30 feet underground by sensing a glandular scent. Desert tortoises are considered an endangered species.
Another funded project with the DOE involves measuring minute levels of carbon-tetrachloride in well water.
Medical applications further down the road include using tiny implanted sensors for the detection bodily fluids and blood gasses in humans with certain medical conditions—for example, glucose levels in persons with diabetes.
The sensor has been in the making for two and a half years, arising from collaboration with Michael Eastman of the University of Texas Pan-American. The basic technology is patented—a process that takes about two years. Two other patents to expand the technology for medical uses are pending.
Porter, a native of California, has been teaching at NAU for 16 years. He was familiar with Flagstaff before moving here, having lived in Arizona while working on a Ph.D. at the University of Arizona.
"Flagstaff is an ideal location for clean, low-environmental impact, biotech business development," Porter says. "NAU has done a lot of adapting" to work with the state in developing business-research partnerships—including a pending interdepartmental proposal for an institute dedicated to that purpose. The proposal is being spearheaded by faculty from biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering, to the Board of Regents.
The proposed institute would comprise university researchers from biology, math, chemistry, physics, engineering, business and social sciences. It would be dedicated to developing economically feasible products in the broad areas of biotechnology and bioengineering.
"We realize the timing isn’t ideal—here we are restructuring and at the same time we’re saying, ‘let’s develop an institute’, " Porter says. "But we need to be patient. If we’re patient, we can make things happen." http://www.nau.edu/