Novel nano-devices developed by U of T researchers

November 10, 2009 By Tammy Thorne

( -- University of Toronto researchers continue to uncover the mysteries of space. But even the best astronauts in the world are stymied if the spaceship doesn't launch. When the countdown stops, it is often because a hydrogen leak has been detected. One small malfunction in the sensing device can mean millions of dollars lost.

Thankfully, there is no failure to launch at U of T's new nanolithography facility where researchers are already developing smaller-than-tiny award-winning devices to improve disease diagnoses and enhance technology that impacts fields as varied as space exploration, the environment, health care and information and media technologies.

One of these novel nano-devices, being developed by PhD student Muhammad Alam, is an optical nose that is capable of detecting multiple gases. Alam hopes it will be used by NASA one day.

Alamis supervised by engineering Professors Mo Mojahedi, director of the Emerging Communications Technology Institute, and Stewart Aitchison, the faculty's vice-dean (research).

Boeing, a supplier of rocket engines for NASA, approached the team in 2007 with an urgent need for a compact and reliable sensor. "Sometimes they have to cancel rocket launches because of false alarms from hydrogen sensors. That's what motivated us to work on designing a cheap and reliable hydrogen sensor," said Alam.

However, he said that was only part of the motivation. Hydrogen is a widely used chemical inmany industries. More than 50million tons of hydrogen was produced and used in 2004 by industries ranging from petroleum refineries to semiconductor processing facilities. The demand for hydrogen is growing bymore than 10 per cent per year. A cheap and reliable hydrogen sensor will help these industries handle hydrogenmore safely and efficiently.

Another motivation behind the work is the potential for use in environmental monitoring of various gases. "We are, of course, concerned about the environment; successful completion of our research could result in cheap sensors with the capability of detecting multiple gases in addition to hydrogen. This can be very useful for environmental monitoring."

Essentially the device consists of many silicon nanowires on a single chip. These are tiny silicon wires that can confine and guide light very similar to the way metal wires guide electricity. The nanowires are coated with material sensitive to hydrogen. Presence of hydrogen changes the amount of light coming out of the nanowires. Since they are so tiny there can be hundreds of themon a single chip and detecting many different gases by same chip is possible. In layperson's terms, Aitchison calls this the "optical nose" because it acts very much like a human nose that can sniff and detect various odours.

"For us the novelty is making them -- integrating multiple things on a single platform. It is very rewarding if the thing we make has practical applications."

The state-of-the-art e-beam lab officially opened Sept. 16 with a $6.5-million electron beam lithography system that can define features as small as 10 nanometres.

Provided by University of Toronto (news : web)

Explore further: Purdue engineers create model for testing transistor reliability

Related Stories

Nano Cluster Devices Unveils Hydrogen Sensor Prototype

June 17, 2005

A new prototype hydrogen sensor has been unveiled by Christchurch, New Zealand, based Nano Cluster Devices Ltd. Hydrogen sensors have many applications in existing industries for leak detection and process control, and could ...

NASA Go for Return to Flight Launch Attempt Tuesday

July 25, 2005

NASA gave the green light for a launch attempt Tuesday for Space Shuttle Discovery on its Return to Flight mission (STS-114). Launch is scheduled for 10:39 a.m. EDT, and it will be carried live on NASA TV.

Enzyme-based biological fuel cell is built

April 19, 2006

Oxford University scientists have built an enzyme based biological fuel cell that takes oxygen and hydrogen from an atmosphere to power electrical devices.

Nano World: Self-powered hydrogen sensors

June 20, 2006

Nanotechnological, inexpensive sensors that can detect invisible, odorless hydrogen leaks and sound the alarm wirelessly could help safeguard future vehicles and refueling stations based on the gas, experts told UPI's Nano ...

Recommended for you

Graphene under pressure

August 25, 2016

Small balloons made from one-atom-thick material graphene can withstand enormous pressures, much higher than those at the bottom of the deepest ocean, scientists at the University of Manchester report.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.