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(Last updated 8/10/05)



COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Two of the top 100 innovative technologies for 2005 grew out of research at Ohio State University -- and both came from the same laboratory.

R&D Magazine recognized Prabir Dutta and his colleagues both for an aircraft fire detection system and a sensor that monitors oxygen levels in high temperature combustion processes.

Prabir Dutta

This is the first time Ohio State has earned two spots on the prestigious “R&D 100” list, which salutes the best inventions to emerge from industry, government, and academia each year.

“Receiving these awards is a tremendous accomplishment,” said Richard R. Freeman, Dean and Distinguished Professor of Mathematical and Physical Sciences. “This research is another example of the great work being conducted at Ohio State that has a positive impact on the economy as well as technologies of the future.”

Dutta, chair of the Department of Chemistry, designs materials with special chemical structures to help solve environmental and energy problems. In particular, his laboratory develops sensors to monitor and control gas emissions, such as exhaust gases in cars and power plants.

The award-winning fire detection system is meant to work in the cargo holds of airplanes, where the temperature and air pressure changes constantly -- conditions that may cause typical fire sensors to malfunction.

This is the first time Ohio State has earned two spots on the prestigious “R&D 100” list, which salutes the best inventions to emerge from industry, government, and academia each year.

Dutta's team was also recognized by R&D Magazine for an oxygen sensor that could help all combustion-based industries. That research is currently focused on helping power plants improve energy efficiency and decrease pollution, and is supported by the Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory (DOE-NETL).

The oxygen sensor is made of two pieces of ceramic -- one of which is a thin membrane -- which are bonded together. It can be placed directly inside a combustion environment, such as a power plant boiler. Conventional oxygen sensors can only be placed in certain locations because they need access to open air, but the Ohio State sensor can be placed anywhere, because it carries its own internal oxygen reference.

When oxygen concentration in its environment changes, an electrical potential is generated across the ceramic membrane.

It's a simple, baby aspirin-sized design that's easy to manufacture -- and, Dutta said, to miniaturize even further. The sensor is based on principles that scientists have known for half a century. The key innovation came from a collaboration between his group and Argonne National Laboratory.

“People have been trying to make this kind of oxygen sensor for a long time, but the right method to seal the materials together was always missing. That's where Argonne came in. We saw in the literature where people there had developed a new sealing technique, and we realized this is just what we were looking for.”

“Normally, the seal is a potential point of structural weakness on any device,” he continued, “but because of Argonne's technique, this oxygen sensor is effectively one piece with no noticeable seal at all.”

Ohio State team members include Sheikh Akbar, professor of materials science and engineering, and Ramamoorthy Ramasamy, a postdoctoral researcher, and John Spirig, a graduate student, both of the Department of Chemistry.

Dutta and his colleagues are currently making prototypes of the oxygen sensor for their industrial partners to test.

The fire detection system also has ties to industry, and is the result of a longtime collaboration between Ohio State and NASA Glenn Research Center. Other partners include Case Western Reserve University and two R&D companies: Sierra Lobo, Inc. of Fremont, Ohio, and Makel Engineering, Inc. of Cleveland, Ohio.

Sheikh Akbar is part of this collaboration as well, as are postdoctoral researcher Chonghoon Lee and former graduate student Joe Trimboli, both of the Department of Chemistry.

The system contains four sensors, each of which detects a different gas that could be produced during a fire. Dutta's lab contributed sensors for carbon monoxide (CO) and carbon dioxide (CO2).

The CO sensor is made from titania and copper oxide, and contains catalysts that react chemically when CO molecules touch the surface. The CO2 sensor is based on lithium compounds. Like Dutta's oxygen sensor, it registers an electrical signal when the concentration of CO2 in the air changes.

In tests, the fire detection system worked flawlessly. It correctly identified fires 100 percent of the time, and worked faster than typical detection systems.

It didn't issue any false alarms, either, and that's important for the airline industry. Because aircraft fires are so dangerous, if a fire alarm goes off when an airplane is in flight, the plane must make an emergency landing immediately. Yet studies have shown that 99 percent of the time -- at least once a week, somewhere in the airline industry -- the fire is a false alarm. Each unscheduled landing costs an airline up to $50,000.

“In aircraft, you need to know as quickly as possible if there's a fire, but you need to know it without having any false alarms,” Dutta said. “It's the combination of the four sensors that makes that possible.”

Makel Engineering plans to commercialize the fire detection system, and NASA is currently funding the group to miniaturize the sensors for use aboard aircraft, while DOE-NETL is funding efforts to improve the CO sensor.

Ohio State will also license its sensors to industry individually, and several commercial companies -- including sensor manufacturers, burner manufacturers, and chemical producers -- have expressed interest in developing the technology further.

R&D Magazine will list all 100 winners in its September issue, and will hold an October awards banquet in Chicago.


Contact: Prabir Dutta, (614) 292-4532; Dutta.1@osu.edu

Written by Pam Frost Gorder, (614) 292-9475; Gorder.1@osu.edu