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Prof. Wei Leads Team Part of NSF Convergence Accelerator Grant

This is a modified version of an original article published by Ren Shore for ASSIST.

It seems almost impossible to imagine replicating the impressive olfactory sensing abilities of animals. Indeed, jewel beetles can detect a burning tree 50 miles away, and dogs can sniff out substances at concentrations of one part per trillion – that means detecting one drop of liquid in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools – which is 1000 times more sensitive than sensors available today. Olfaction-based chemical sensing technology has grown in recent years, but the sensors don’t match natural olfactory systems in sensitivity and specificity.

Man in glasses smiling
Prof. Qingshan Wei

Qingshan Wei, Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, put together an interdisciplinary team including other ASSIST and Institute for Connected Sensor-Systems (IConS) researchers who are working to advance and refine two small-scale technologies for detecting volatile organic compounds (VOCs): colorimetric VOC sensor arrays and wearable VOC sensor patches, aiming to reach the stage of mass production.

Their project, “Accelerating VOC Sensor Advances and Translation by Machine Learning and Bioinspiration,” was awarded a one-year, $650,000 U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) Convergence Accelerator Phase 1 grant aligned to the program’s Track L: Real-World Chemical Sensing Applications.

Wei, the project’s principal investigator (PI), is joined by co-PIs Alper Bozkurt (Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), Co-Director of ASSIST Center and IConS), Yong Zhu (Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering), Nelson Vinueza (Textile Engineering, Chemistry, and Science), Coby Schal (Entomology and Plant Pathology), and Senior Personnel Veena Misra (Interim ECE Department Head, Co-Director of ASSIST Center and IConS) and Edgar Lobaton (ECE). The research team wants to overcome obstacles in translational science for olfactory sensors. Their goal is to speed up the development and practical use of these sensors in creating products that can help diagnose human and plant diseases and monitor the environment noninvasively.

Reacting to the news of the award, Wei said, “We are so pleased to receive the Convergence Accelerator Track L Phase I award. This grant gives us the opportunity to further develop two low-cost and miniature VOC sensor technologies – a colorimetric chemical sensor array and a wearable VOC sensor for disease diagnostics and health monitoring applications, in particular in the area of plant health and precision agriculture. This grant mechanism is quite unique in the sense that we will team up with end users such as growers, industry and government partners for sensor co-development and optimization to the level of commercialization.”

The convergence approach of this project relies on the merging of conventional sensor research (chemistry, materials, and electronics) with two other distinct disciplinary areas: data intelligence and insect senses. The project results will establish a scientific foundation in olfactory sensor design and a partnership between academic research groups and industry manufacturers for sensor scaling up. These affordable, portable, and sensitive sensors can be especially helpful for underprivileged communities with limited resources. They can address important issues related to global health and food security by enhancing the ability to monitor personal health, protect crops, and detect environmental changes.