Marathon Runner Developing Bomb-sniffing Sensors

April 22nd, 2014

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MIT graduate student Joseph Azzarelli is researching low-cost, sensitive devices able to detect bombs—devices that could, if widely deployed, help to prevent tragedies like the one that stunned Boston a year ago. Yesterday the chemistry PhD candidate ran 26.2 miles in honor of slain police officer Sean Collier as part of the MIT Strong team. That finish line is now behind him, but his hours in the lab have become, in their own way, a sustained response to the Boston Marathon bombings of last April.

As part of the Swager Lab, Azzarelli is pursuing technologies for chemical sensors that can detect gases in very low concentrations. In the hands of anti-terrorism teams, he explains, this could be a valuable tool not just in detecting toxic gases, but also in finding undetonated explosives—which, as you might surmise from the existence of bomb-sniffing dogs, emit trace amounts of telltale molecules.

Even when certain chemicals are a molecular needle in the environmental haystack, their presence can be “very meaningful in terms of the information it conveys,” Azzarelli notes. This type of data could be useful in a variety of other sectors, as well—to grocers monitoring food spoilage, for example, or factory owners concerned with air quality.

Azzarelli ticks off three major hurdles in his research. The first, signal transduction, is squarely in chemist territory: “What are the underlying properties of materials you can exploit to maximize the output from the smallest input?” Challenge two is fundamentally an engineering problem: “How do you take a process that works in a lab setting and put it into devices that will function in the real world”—devices that are, ideally, wireless and can withstand harsh weather and rough handling? His ultimate concern is cost. If this technology is to be adopted broadly by cities and businesses, the devices and materials must be inexpensive and commercially available.

Azzarelli went into this research with the belief that making “chemical insight” accessible could have a host of societal benefits. That it could make society safer makes sense to him now on a visceral level. “I’d been keenly aware of the groundbreaking counter-explosives work that members of the Swager Group had accomplished before I came to MIT, and had helped to implement in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. But last year’s bombings in Boston made me realize the global importance of this work.”

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