ERDC, DEVCOM ARL partners create bright future with new photonic technology> Engineer R&D Center> News Stories

Miss Vicksburg. — Researchers at the U.S. Army Engineers Research and Development Center (ERDC) teamed up with researchers at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Army Research Laboratory (DEVCOM ARL) to develop the Photonic Integrated Circuit (PIC), a new method for capturing and detecting hazardous water. Technology – Pollutants in the environment.

The technology uses tiny light beams to probe glass-like surfaces smaller than a human hair. The team expects – due to the device’s microscopic size – that one day millions of PIC sensors could be installed in the corners of smartphones to report contamination in real time.

“Through high-impact publications and conference presentations by Dr. ERDC. Our collaborators Gilbert Kosgei and Ashvin Fernando at DEVCOM ARL were able to tap into the expertise of ERDC,” said Dr. ERDC Research Chemist. Matthew Glascott said. “We all see an opportunity to combine our materials with their instruments to detect contaminants in our military and civilian mission spaces.”

By placing a thin layer of adhesive material on the surface of the PIC, specific contaminants can be captured and detected at concentrations of parts per trillion. Powerful sensors can detect a drop of pollutants in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

The key to this technique is the choice of contamination binding material. In 2021, DEVCOM ARL asked Glasscott to assist in the development of special adhesive materials called molecularly imprinted polymers (MIPs). Glasscott has previously published ERDC’s advances in MIP technology in the peer-reviewed journals Environmental Science and Technology and Applied Polymer Materials.

In order to be used in DEVCOM ARL’s sensors, the adhesive material must meet three specifications. It has to be ultra-thin to fit on small sensors; it needs to be computationally engineered to bind specific contaminants; and it has to be reusable for multiple rounds of sensing.

Taking these factors into consideration, ERDC materials scientist Dr. Jared Cobb has discovered an innovative method to generate nanoscale polymer films.

“These films interact with visible light in new ways, producing colors that aren’t normally found in the rainbow,” Cobb said. “This is due to a phenomenon called thin film interference with our ultrathin polymers, and because we can precisely control the thickness of the thin films, we can also precisely control how they interact with visible light.”

PhD. Members of the ERDC Computational Chemistry team, Caite Bresnahan and Tim Schutt, developed a computational framework to optimize the binding interactions of potential candidate materials with target molecules. “Our procedure allows for rapid screening to reduce the time and effort required for each new iteration of a MIP-based contaminant sensor,” Bresnahan said.

Glasscott traveled to Adelphi, Maryland to personally provide the bonding technology to DEVCOM ARL, using their state-of-the-art cleanroom facility to successfully demonstrate ERDC’s material as a reusable sensor.

The technology transfer has resulted in a promising new instrument for the detection of harmful contaminants, which ERDC and DEVCOM ARL will continue to develop together in fiscal 2023.

“The future of this photonic technology is bright, and our team looks forward to harnessing the power of the ERDC and the capabilities of the DEVCOM ARL to bring results to soldiers and citizens,” Glasscott said.

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