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$1 Million in Grants Allow Boise State Researchers to Manufacture Flexible Sensors

David Estrada and Harish Subbaraman, co-directors of the Advanced Nanomaterials and Manufacturing Laboratory (ANML) at Boise State University, recently were awarded two national grants related to additive manufacturing for extreme environments – including nuclear reactors and space.

A one-year, $295,392 grant administered by the Department of Energy will be used to purchase advanced manufacturing equipment needed to build sensors suitable for extreme environments. Estrada and Subbaraman aim to establish a state-of-the-art laboratory capable of producing the radiation tolerant nanoparticle based inks needed to print nuclear sensors that can be inserted into a nuclear reactor. Such “in-pile” sensors will transmit real-time data about the reactor environment, providing new insights into reactor processes in order to strengthen U.S. competitiveness in nuclear research and development. The new nanoparticle ink synthesis lab will place the ANML among a national network of nuclear science user facilities for the benefit of researchers from across the nation.

Another three-year, $748,000 grant administered by NASA’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) will use nanotechnology to develop space-grade flexible sensors that are capable of transmitting real-time sensing data for trace gas vapors and exposure to radiation while in space.

“Our vision is to leverage the unique physical properties of nanomaterials to create a new design paradigm for space-grade flexible hybrid electronics sensor systems, and build a light, flexible and self-sustaining multifunctional sensor to provide real-time information about crew and vehicle health,” said Estrada.

“Integrating our nanomaterials with advanced manufacturing techniques could potentially provide a low-cost path towards large-scale manufacturing of nanomaterial-based sensors for earth based applications in agricultural technologies, human health monitoring systems and aerospace sensors,” Subbaraman added.

In collaboration with the University of Idaho, American Semiconductor and the NASA Ames Research Center, Boise State’s ANML will combine printed carbon nanotubes, polymer brushes, chalcogenide glasses and thermoelectric nanomaterials with flexible silicon-integrated circuits and wireless communications hardware to create the flexible multifunctional sensor nodes.

The ability to manipulate matter at the nanoscale enables the bottom-up design of innovative nanomaterial-based sensors, which benefit from unique properties such as high surface-area-to-volume ratio and tunable transport processes, allowing the team to design highly sensitive and mission specific sensors. The ability to print nanomaterials using additive manufacturing techniques highlights a path towards the digital design and in-space manufacturing of mission-specific sensors.

Additionally, they are partnering with the Johnson Space Center, Marshall Flight Space Center, Air Force Research Laboratories and PakSense/Emerson to guide project progress towards NASA’s performance goals, as well as translate this new sensor technology into defense and consumer electronics industries.

The EPSCoR program supports science and technology research and development at colleges and universities in areas such as remote sensing, nanotechnology, astrophysics and aeronautics.