Air Force Says Basic Research at UC San Diego Helps U.S. 'Anticipate Threats'

By Doug Ramsey, 858-822-5825,

San Diego, CA, June 14, 2007  -- In recent testimony on Capitol Hill and published in the Congressional Record, a top official from the Department of Defense (DoD) called the attention of lawmakers to the progress made so far by researchers on a six-year, multidisciplinary $7 million basic research project at the University of California, San Diego.

RDX fingerprints
'Turn-on' luminescence sensing of residue from five generations of RDX fingerprints. [Work  led by professor William Trogler]

UC San Diego is the only university named by Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Terry J. Jaggers, who handles science, technology and engineering in the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR). Jaggers was speaking to the House Armed Services Committee subcommittee on terrorism, unconventional threats and capabilities. The topic: Fiscal '08 appropriations for Air Force science and technology programs.

"In the far term, efforts funded within our basic research program at the Air Force Office of Scientific Research are already yielding exciting results in our ability to anticipate threats," said Jaggers. "AFOSR started  funding a University of California, San Diego effort in fiscal year 2002 to study photoluminescence quenching effects in certain polymers to  understand how these effects might be used in integrated nanosensors to  strengthen our war fighter's ability to anticipate threats."

Trace detection of TNT by 'turn-off' sensing. [Work led by professor William Trogler.]
Jaggers went on to note that "a by-product of this basic research was a low-cost and robust Improvised Explosive  Device (IED) detection sensor, currently being commercially marketed for  use in field settings such as security checkpoints, stadiums, and  amusement parks."

"This is basic research, not a fabrication project," stressed Ivan Schuller, a professor of physics at UC San Diego and Director of  the Nanostructured Supersensors project funded through the DoD's Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) program.

But, says Schuller, "a large number of new projects have come out of this basic research" -- eleven at last count -- and the MURI project has been an engine for technology transfer to the private sector. So far, two new venture capital-backed companies -- RedX Defense and Rhevision Technology, Inc. -- have begun using some of the science and technology developed by the MURI for Nanostructured Supersensors. (Rhevision was founded by Jacobs School of Engineering electrical and computer engineering professor Yu-Hwa Lo, a co-PI on the MURI project.)

In a recent presentation, Schuller also noted that the MURI project has leveraged substantial activities in the private sector beyond RedX and Rhevision, including Boeing and Midwest Research Institute (remote thermal imaging cameras), Avaak and Seacoast (chemical warfare agents), and Hitachi Chemical Research Center (bio agents).

Schuller also points to some of the other impressive metrics for the five-year-old Nanostructured Supersensors project: as of late May 2007: 16 patents filed and disclosed; four licenses; three Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) awards granted by DoD; 99-plus invited talks; and 74 papers.

Ivan Schuller at Nano3
Ivan Schuller with members of his team in the Nano3 cleanroom facility at Calit2 on the UC San Diego campus.
A major focus of all MURI projects is the multidisciplinary (and interdisciplinary) component. Physicist Schuller collaborates routinely with UCSD chemists Andrew Kummel and Bill Trogler, biochemistry professor Michael Sailor, and Jacobs School electrical engineer Yu-Hwa Lo. They also collaborate with counterparts from the Air Force Research Lab (optics expert Gail Brown, and Heather Haughan, who leads the work on growth), and the Integrated Nanosensors Lab/Nano3 facility at the UCSD division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2).

According to Schuller, the "most important contribution" of the MURI project is the pipeline of students, staff and postdoctoral associates who have participated over the 58 months of the project to date. These 'alums' include Calit2 senior engineers Maribel Montero and Bernd Fruhberger (pictured above, second and third from right, respectively), 10 postdocs, 35 graduate students and eight undergraduates. Collaboration has even reached into the Moores UCSD Cancer Center in the form of joint work on a possible detector for breast cancer that might also be a model for a device to detect bioweapons.

ChemFET evolution
Evolution of Chemical Field Effect Transistor (ChemFET) developed by the 'supersensors' project: (l-r) Three parallel electrodes in 2004; 100 interdigitated electrodes for single ChemFET in 2005; six independent ChemFETs on a single chip in 2006; and in 2007, an 8-pack handheld unit for testing air sampler design.
[Work led by professor Andrew Kummel.]
The initial five-year project has been extended one more year, and will wrap up in 2008. But Schuller has high hopes for ongoing research in this field. His near-term plans include new materials (luminescent, improved phthalocyanines -- MPcs); new devices such as photo Chemical Field Effect Transistor  comprehensive tests (chemical mixture); and fluidics (specifically, integration with different sensors).

Looking further ahead, to what the UCSD physicist calls the "far future," future research could focus on development of programmable remote sensors that would require development of other new materials (e.g., programmable polymers, peroxide sensors, and bi-functional MPc); new devices such as programmable sensors and microGC; and new fluidics and microfluidic pathogen sensors.

Related Links
Ivan Schuller Nanoscience Group
Nano3 Cleanroom Facility at Calit2