[author: J. Steven Rutt]

The NNI is now presenting to the public a new signature initiative devoted to sensors. Two thrusts are identified: (1) use of nanotechnology in building sensors, and (2) develop better sensing methods for detecting nanomaterials. An associated white paper provides more details.

This is the fifth signature intiative from the NNI. According to the announcement, past sensor work has been held back due to problems with lack of reliabilty, reproducibility, and robustness. Sensors apply to a broad spectrum of industries, including energy, health, and defense. Certainly, after 9-11, sensors were identified as a key technology associated with homeland defense. Hence, federal thrusts in this sector would seem to make sense.

Some references to commercialization are present. For example, the announcement refers to US Patent No. 7,889,954 as an example of the type of technology upon which they want to build (from the Sailor group at University of San Diego). However, as if often the case with the federal government announcements, the commercialization issues at stake lack detail. For example, no patent studies are noted as part of what is important commercially in work to date. No analysis of the Bayh-Dole system in this sector or of the history of licensing or venture funding for sensor technology is noted. Brief reference to nanomanufacturing is noted (nanomanufacturing is another NNI signature initiative).

The ’954 patent, according to PTO records, is assigned to University of California and the federal government, jointly. Federal money apparently was used to develop the invention. The patent abstract for this patent is below:

An embodiment of the invention is a remote sensor that has an optical fiber terminating in a tip. A thin film porous particle having a characteristic optical response that changes in the presence of an analyte is optically coupled and physically attached to the tip of the optical fiber. The optical response of the particle changes in the presence of analyte, and the particle also serves to concentrate analyte. The thin film porous particle can be functionalized toward sensitivity for a predetermined analyte or analytes. A method of remote sensing exposes the remote sensor to an environment to be monitored for analyte. The thin film porous particle is probed with a beam of light. Reflected light is monitored through the optical fiber for a shift in frequency or intensity.