Monday, February 18, 2019

A New Generation of 3D Printed Nano-Material Sensor Platforms

          By Brian Orlotti

A NASA team has received a $2Mln US ($2.65Mln CDN) grant to develop a 3D-printed nanomaterial-based sensor platform. The small, low-power, high sensitivity platform could greatly enhance space exploration efforts.

The team, headed by technologist Mahmooda Sultana and located at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland, will spend the next two years developing the platform.

The platform will be capable of sensing a wide variety of data such as minute concentrations of gases, atmospheric pressure and temperature, then transmitting them wirelessly from a self-contained platform measuring just two-by-three-inches. Such tiny platforms could be deployed on planetary rovers to detect small quantities of water and methane or serve as biological sensors to monitor astronauts’ health.

Key to the effort is a 3D printing system developed by Ahmed Busnina and his group at Northeastern University in Boston. The 3D printing system deposits nanomaterials (such as carbon nanotubes, graphene, molybdenum disulfide and others), layer-by-layer, onto a substrate to create tiny sensors. Each sensor can detect different gas, pressure level or temperature.

Nanomaterials are highly sensitive and stable at extreme conditions. They are also lightweight, radiation-hardened and require less power, making them ideal for space applications.

Under the partnership with Northeastern University, Sultana and her team will design the sensor platform, determining which combination of materials are best for measuring minute, parts-per-billion concentrations of water, ammonia, methane and hydrogen.

Northeastern University will then use its 3D printing system to apply the nano-materials.

The approach differs dramatically from how multi-functional sensor platforms are currently made.

Rather than building one sensor at a time and then integrating it with other components, 3D printing enables the printing of an entire suite of sensors onto one platform, dramatically simplifying integration and packaging. In another innovative twist, Sultana’s team plans to print a wireless antenna and circuitry onto the same silicon wafer as the sensors, further simplifying instrument design and fabrication.

According to Sultana, the project addresses NASA’s need for small, low-power, lightweight, and highly sensitive sensors as an alternative to the mass spectrometers currently used on space missions to detect molecules of interest. Although mass spectrometers can detect a wide variety of molecules, they have difficulty distinguishing between types such as water, methane and ammonia.

A suite of small yet powerful sensors built into a compact package recalls the iconic ‘tricorder’ devices seen in the ‘Star Trek’ franchise. The work done by Sultana’s team reminds us that the science fiction of yesterday can become the science fact of tomorrow.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a network operator at the Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION), a not-for-profit network service provider to the education and research sectors.

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