Nanotechnology holds promise for security applications

How state-of the-art sensor technology could be used for detecting and combating chemical, biological agents


Potential radiologic threats in the environment can currently be reliably detected with portable radiation detectors that have been deployed as part of the Intelligent Radiation Sensing System developed by the Department of Homeland Security. If that system should be compromised or bypassed, however, and people were to be exposed to dangerous levels of ionizing radiation, the current methods to determine the magnitude of exposure are either a blood test which measures chromosomal changes or by simply observing whether physical symptoms develop.  Both methods take several days before results can be obtained and this would be much too long to initiate optimal treatment.  Fortunately, scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Stanford University have developed a chip with a nanosensor array that can measure the concentration of blood proteins known to change following radiation exposure.  The test using this system needs only a single drop of blood and can effectively triage people who may have been exposed to radiation.  Eventually the investigators hope to develop a hand-held device that “lights up” to indicate a person who needs treatment following the exposure. 

Affected individuals will also need to have continuing medical monitoring on a short- and long-term basis.  While that can be a relatively simple endeavor with only a few persons involved, the task can be daunting when the number of victims is in the hundreds or thousands.  Proteus Digital Health has developed, and received clearance from the Food and Drug Administration for, an ingestible wireless sensor technology the size of a grain of sand that, along with a wearable device and a cell phone, can monitor physiologic parameters the include heart rate, temperature and activity patterns.  The Proteus system is operational for only a short period of time, but a sensor using carbon nanotubes implanted under the skin, developed by Michael Strano at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, can measure substances for much longer, perhaps even a year.

As ingestible, implantable, wearable and portable sensor monitoring systems develop and are enhanced, it is inevitable that their capabilities will continue to improve over time and, if incorporated into a multimodal medical sensor network (similar to that currently employed by some hospitals to track staff and equipment), will be able to automatically assess threats in the environment and monitor the health status of large numbers of patients to determine the efficacy of treatment.

About the AuthorDr. Steven Hausman is President of Hausman Technology Presentations and Consulting (www.HausmanTech.com).  He speaks professionally and conducts briefings on a wide array of topics related to technology, science and security that include nanotechnology, robotics, 3D printing, bionics (artificial limbs and organs) and radio frequency identification (RFID).  He can be contacted via his website or his LinkedIn profile at http://www.linkedin.com/in/stevenhausman.