Army investigates 'smell-seeing' technology for military application

By Kristen Dalton, RDECOMJanuary 9, 2013

Army investigates 'smell-seeing' technology for military application
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (Army News Service, Jan. 8, 2013) -- At the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, scientists are fine-tuning odor-sensing technology that could be used to protect food supplies, identify biological agents and equip the warfighter with newfound capabilities.

Calvin Chue, Ph.D., a research biologist at Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, or ECBC, said nearly all living creatures or biological materials give off a specific profile of organic compounds, or a unique smell. Those compounds can be detected and identified using a volatile organic compound visual indicator that was developed in 2000 by Ken Suslick, Ph.D., at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

The "smell-seeing" technology developed by Suslick includes an array of different dyes that are sensitive to volatile organic compounds, or VOC, smells. Each of those dyes changes color in different ways, based on what it is exposed to. After sufficient exposure, the paper-based colorimetric array can be photographed, and the resulting image can be run through a software application that identifies what compounds are present.

The ECBC is teaming with Specific Technologies of Mountain View, Calif., through a cooperative research and development agreement to utilize the VOC detection application with the military in mind. What was once used to determine whether coffee beans were Starbucks or Folgers, could now be used to discern biological agents or test for the spoiling of foodstuffs.

"We've been working with them [Science Technologies] as well as the Defense Science Technology Laboratory in Great Britain to validate and verify that the same technology can be applied to biological agents, and we will expand it to foodstuffs and transport issues," Chue said.

"We believe it will significantly help troops with their supply and logistics chain," Chue said. "If the warfighter just received a shipment of grapes or meat or dairy from the United States, it may look good but what do you have that tells you that this is going to spoil in a day versus a week? This kind of technology can help."

Chue said the ECBC has been working on VOC detection for the past 10 years using a different method, called gas chromatography, as part of an effort to replace dogs on detection missions. But the gas chromatography technology proved to be a burdensome and complex project that required specific training for the large, non-portable equipment, he said.

With the innovative VOC detection applications, Chue and the ECBC team are able to broaden the scope of work for implementation in the military arena at a cost-effective rate.

Right now, scientists are developing ways to embed the VOC technology into mason jars in order to better evaluate the foodstuffs inside and determine the preservation rate. Other avenues of implementation could protect the warfighter from biological agents that may have contaminated a container or item.

"We are integrating this kind of technology into a variety of mechanisms, but those mechanisms need to be decided. There are a number of fields that this will ultimately benefit and could actually have a wide range of applications," Chue said. "We envision this growing into a mobile platform where it could be inserted into various containers that you could take a picture of in order to determine the state of the VOCs inside."

As part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, it is ECBC's mission to integrate lifecycle science, engineering and operations solutions to counter chemical-biological threats, and the VOC detection applications being developed by the center and its partners is a progressive way to advance the safety of U.S. forces and the nation.

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