Biohazard Protection in Your Pocket: PDAs Could Give Users Instant Answers in a World of Bioterrorism

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Biohazard Protection in Your Pocket PDAs Could Give Users Instant Answers in a World of Bioterrorism By Tech Live staff Oct. 31 These days, Americans want to know instantly if the dust on the lip of a mailbox is only dust, if the water in US reservoirs is safe, or if food is free from contaminants. Scientists at the Georgia Tech Research Institute’s Center for Emergency Response Technology, Instruction, and Policy (CERTIP) in Atlanta have developed a low-cost portable toxin detector that could help put a jittery nation more at ease. “Americans tend to turn toward technology to solve their problems,” Georgia Tech researcher Dr. Tom Bevan said. “It helped us in the Cold War. It has helped us in a lot of places.” Amid rising fears of bioterror, Americans may soon find themselves turning to a handheld biological and chemical threat detector developed by Bevan and his colleagues. The device is designed to sniff out even the tiniest trace of harmful agents, whether they are proteins, toxins, DNA, or an entire organism. Could Soon Be a PDA Plug-in Known as an opto-electronic interferometer, the device uses simple chemistry and light to identify the offending particles. Basically, the device is an optical sensor housed on a 1-by-2-centimeter chip. One layer on the chip is a glass wave guide that transmits light. Another layer consists of thin chemical coatings that act as sensors. When they come into contact with different biological or chemical agents, the coatings are transformed in unique and measurable ways. Right now, the device is equipped with 12 different sensors, but the researchers say there is room to incorporate dozens more. To test a suspect substance, a laser like the one used in a CD player shines through the wave guide and the chemical coatings. The coatings, or sensors, change the direction the light travels. Signal-processing software incorporated into the chip analyzes this light interference in seconds to identify the contaminant and determine how much of it is present. Though the process may sound complicated, GTRI researcher Daniel Campbell said reading the results is a relatively simple process. “It shouldn’t take a Ph.D. to be able to use the sensor and analyze the results,” Campbell said. In fact, the inventors say their toxin detector is so easy to use that they plan to market the device as a PDA plug-in. That would allow a police officer or firefighter armed with a handheld to enter a suspected “hot zone,” plug in the detector, take a sample, and get an immediate readout. About $200-$300 for the Unit The GTRI researchers say it would cost between $200 and $300 per unit to produce the detectors commercially. At that price, the detectors might also find a market among ordinary citizens seeking a little peace of mind. “[This would] let people be able to decide whether there is a threat present or not before letting hysteria take over,” Campbell said. The opto-electronic interferometer also could have other, more mundane uses, such as measuring smog or the quality of drinking water. Even before the current bioterrorism threat, the device was already headed for market, with a launch possible by late next year. But given the need to build public confidence, the researchers say their invention could become commercially available much sooner. “We’ve been approached by both governmental and non-governmental people to figure out how to accelerate it,” Bevan said. “At this point, it just takes money.” Rick Lockridge of ‘Tech Live’ contributed to this report.

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