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$15m funding boost for new sensor center

16 May 2006

Mid-infrared emitting quantum cascade lasers are to play a key role in research as Princeton plans its new multi-million dollar interdisciplinary sensor engineering center.

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) has agreed to fund an engineering research center at Princeton University to the tune of $15 million dollars over five years. The total funding could exceed $40 million over ten years with the addition of industrial support.

Dubbed MIRTHE, for Mid-Infrared Technologies for Health and the Environment, the center will combine the work of about 40 faculty members, 30 graduate student and 30 undergraduates from six US universities.

Its aim is to revolutionise sensor technology and produce devices that can detect minute amounts of chemicals for environmental science and medical applications.

"The sensors we are creating will be portable and easy to use," said Claire Gmachl, the center's new director and associate professor of electrical engineering at Princeton. "Today's state-of-the-art sensors are very sensitive, but require an expert to operate and are bulky and expensive. MIRTHE's vision is to make sensors with the same or better level of sensitivity at a fraction of the size and cost."

The sensors will make use of quantum cascade lasers that emit light in the mid-infrared region of the spectrum. These wavelengths allow researchers to accurately observe chemicals such as ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and benzene.

"When viewed in the mid-infrared, the world is alive with chemicals. The ability to detect or monitor these gases with a high degree of sensitivity provides important information about the processes that produced them," said Matthew Fraser, deputy director of MIRTHE and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University.

According to Alexey Belyanin, assistant professor of physics at Texas A&M University (one of the core partner institutions), MIRTHE puts emphasis on both fundamental science and practical applications. "This center adopts a comprehensive, unifying approach that pushes forward each of the necessary ingredients for a sensor: infrared sources, detectors, circuits, interconnects, all while working in close collaboration with end users," he said.

Such an approach is aimed, say those involved, to allow each of MIRTHE's research teams to build on the others' advances. "We make use of established technologies while also pursuing novel high-risk approaches," said the MIRTHE's other deputy director, Anthony Johnson, professor of physics and of computer science and electrical engineering at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. "The potential payoff is enormous."

Darius Nikbin is Science/Technology Reporter on Optics.org and Opto & Laser Europe magazine.

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