Department of Defense Multidiciplinary University Research Initiative (ARO/MURI)

The Artificial Nose: Modeling Polymeric Chemical Sensors  

Caltech, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Harvard Medical School, and Yale University, have joined forces to understand human olfaction. "Understanding Olfaction: From Detection to Classification" is a five year project funded under the Multidiciplinary Research Initiative of the Army Research Office, Department of Defense. The project aims at increasing our knowledge of the least well understood sensory system of the mammalian nervous system. Olfaction plays a major role in mammalian behavior, and the ability to detect and recognize airborne molecules is increasingly important to our society, both in civilian and defense applications. Prof. James Bower, a computational neurobiologist, and the Co-PI's Professors William A. Goddard III, a theoretical chemist, Rodney Goodman, electrical engineer, Nate Lewis, structural chemist, Linda Buck, molecular and cellular neurobiologist, and Gordon Shepherd, neurobiologist, have come together to collaborate each bringing their own unique point of view to this challenging and ambitious project.

Expected Outcome

We expect to have a profound impact on the understanding of the neurobiology of olfaction, as well as our ability to profit from what is known about biology in the construction of artificial olfactory-type vapor sensing devices (Artificial Nose). The outcome will be a device whose performance, capabilties and similarity to biology is quantifiable.

Expected Impact

The scientific and technical impact of this collaboration will be substantial. In terms of training graduate students and postdocs we will emphasize the interdiciplinary aspect of this project, cutting across Biology, Engineering, and Chemistry as well as multi-technical involving both experimental and theoretical approaches. The ability to detect minute amounts of specific chemicals has many important defense as well as civilian applications. For example, vapor sensors and sensor arrays are important to chemical and biological warfare defense, demining, non proliferation, and a host of other vapor sensing applications that now have no good solution but in which insight into olfaction might allow construction of artificial sensor systems that function with the low power, adaptability, and other high performance features that characterize the mamalian olfactory sense. In addition, neural network and pattern recognition algorithms are important in advancing the performance of sensor arrays in a variety of optical and electromagnetic detector systems. Various pattern recognition algorithms will be developed for robotic search strategies for autonomous operation and surveillance of airborne molecules in a pletora of DoD-related applications.

The first site visit took place September 22-23 at Caltech. A PowerPoint presentation for the theoretical chemistry segment of the MURI/ARO Olfaction project is available below.