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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University May 8, 2006 | Vol. 35 No. 33
New focus on sensor technology

By Lisa De Nike

Fourteen Baltimore researchers are part of a new national engineering research center that is expected to revolutionize sensor technology, yielding devices that have a unique ability to detect minute amounts of chemicals in the atmosphere, whether they are emitted from factories or exhaled in human breath. The Baltimore contingent in the six-university consortium includes seven faculty members from four Johns Hopkins University schools and seven from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

The goal of the center, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and based at Princeton University, is to produce devices that are so low in cost and so easy to use that they will transform the way doctors care for patients, agencies monitor air quality, governments guard against attacks and scientists understand the evolution of greenhouse gases. Dubbed MIRTHE for Mid-Infrared Technologies for Health and the Environment, the project will combine the work of about 40 faculty members, 30 graduate students and 30 undergraduates from Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Rice and Texas A&M universities; UMBC; and City College of New York.

Funding for the center, which is expected to include industrial support in addition to the NSF funding, could exceed $40 million over 10 years. NSF funding began May 1, with $2.97 million allotted for the project's first year. At Johns Hopkins, researchers from Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Medicine and Public Health are working on projects ranging from sensors that allow doctors to diagnose and monitor diseases based on the chemical composition of a patient's breath to a wireless network that can measure the chemical, biological and physical attributes of soil in situ.

"The breath of patients with kidney and liver diseases emits certain chemical biomarkers, including ammonia," said Terence H. Risby of the Bloomberg School of Public Health. "It is our goal to build and evaluate a breath ammonia monitor that will improve treatment for kidney and liver disease. The collection of exhaled breath has several major potential advantages in patient care, as it is noninvasive and entirely safe for both patients and medical personnel. In fact, one long-term goal of this project is the development of an ammonia breath monitor suitable and safe to use by patients for home dialysis."

Katalin Szlavecz, a geologist and associate research professor at the Krieger School, said that the goal of her project — developing a wireless sensor network that can continuously send data to laboratory computers from various settings in woodlands and fields — is to better understand how various processes in the soil contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

"The sensors will continuously collect environmental data at a scale that was not previously possible," Szlavecz said. "With these tools, we will obtain unprecedented data, improving our ability to better estimate the contribution of soil processes to greenhouse emission."

Other MIRTHE participants will explore sensors that monitor air quality and detect the presence of chemical weapons.

The center's investigators also are collaborating with dozens of industrial partners to turn technology into commercial products, and are working with several educational outreach partners who will use the research as a vehicle for improving science and engineering education. The work will run the gamut from fundamental science to applied technology.

"The sensors we are creating are like iPods compared to the tabletop-sized computers of the past," said Claire Gmachl, associate professor of electrical engineering at Princeton and the center's director. "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."

In addition, MIRTHE researchers hope to educate a new generation to carry the center's knowledge to leaders in industry, government and academia. The center's participants also plan to allow students (college and K-12) to participate in hands-on science and engineering projects.

Johns Hopkins researchers involved in MIRTHE, in addition to Risby and Szlavecz, are Robert Brown, of the Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine in the School of Medicine; Jacob Khurgin, of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the Whiting School; Charles Lowenstein and Steven Solga, both of the Department of Medicine in the School of Medicine; and Michael Trush, of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences in the Bloomberg School.

More information on Szlavecz's project is available at


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