Example of a wireless, battery-free RFID sensor tag for detection of chemicals such as explosives and oxidizers at very low concentrations (source GE)
Example of a wireless, battery-free RFID sensor tag for detection of chemicals such as explosives and oxidizers at very low concentrations (source GE)

GE Global Research, GE’s (NYSE: GE) technology development arm, today announced a significant technological achievement in a project to develop next-generation, cost-effective sensors for cargo shipping for detecting chemicals used in explosives or other hazardous materials at shipping ports.

GE, in partnership with the Technical Support Working Group (TSWG), a U.S. Interagency program for research and development into counter-terrorism measures, Quantum Magnetics, a subsidiary of Morpho Detection, and with the assistance of KemSENSE, a subsidiary of Vener8 Technologies, has developed a new sensor based on GE’s radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology. GE’s RFID sensors is intended to wirelessly detect and quantify chemicals of interest, at low concentrations, in the presence of multiple interferences, without adding to their complexity, size, or cost.

GE’s sensors have been developed in the form of battery-free RFID tags coated with a sensing material that responds to explosives and oxidizers. The penny-sized tags can be deployed on a variety of surfaces. If placed on the outside of a shipping container, for example, and the presence of a dangerous explosive or oxidizer is detected in the air, the sensing material will change its electronic properties and will trigger the RFID tag to send an alert to a cell phone-sized reader.

“GE’s sensors could dramatically increase the accuracy and improve the limits of detection of dangerous chemical threats,” said Radislav Potyrailo, a principal scientist at GE Global Research and principal investigator on the project. “Fast and accurate chemical detection and quantitation are vital to help ensuring the safety of cargo that passes through our nation’s ports.”

GE’s sensors can also be used in airport settings as part of a fixed or mobile security solution. Moreover, sensor networks can be connected to a central station, offering real-time, cost-effective and continuous monitoring.

“In airports today, bulky, stationary desktop systems typically screen for explosives,” Potyrailo added. “Suspicious surfaces are swabbed and separately analyzed, consuming substantial time, space and power. Compared to a conventional desktop detector, our system is 300 times smaller, and reduces weight and power use 100 fold. To achieve needed accuracy, GE’s approach simplifies detection by using an individual sensor rather than relying on arrays of multiple sensors.”

The development of sensors which can detect ultra-trace levels of chemicals could also benefit industries outside of homeland security. For instance, they could be used to detect minute gas leaks, aging and degradation of electrical isolation, and bacteria and mold spore growth in residential and industrial buildings. In the healthcare space, these sensors could be used to ensure that surfaces have been sanitized properly.

“GE has created a high-sensitivity power-free, wireless sensor whose real-time measurement of chemical and biological properties has huge upside for the healthcare, natural resource, agriculture and consumer sectors,” added Anton Simunovic, CEO of KemSENSE.

GE expects production costs for these sensors would range from 5 to 50 cents per sensor, depending on their performance specs and fabrication volume. This attractive price tag is attributable to GE’s expertise in the area of battery-free RFID sensors.

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