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NASA Technologist Receives Technology Development Award to Create Nanomaterial-Based Detector

A technologist at NASA is taking miniaturization to a whole new level. Mahmooda Sultana received funding to develop a promising groundbreaking nanomaterial-based detector platform.

Technologist Mahmooda Sultana holds an early iteration of an autonomous multifunctional sensor platform, which could benefit all of NASA's major scientific disciplines and efforts to send humans to the Moon and Mars. (Image credit: NASA/W. Hrybyk)

The innovative technology has the potential to sense everything, from extremely small concentrations of vapor and gases through to temperature and pressure in the atmosphere, and to subsequently transmit that data through a wireless antenna—all from the same self-contained platform measuring merely 2 x 2 inches in size.

The $2 million technology development award will allow Sultana and her group at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, to develop the autonomous multifunctional sensor platform in the next two years.

If the technology becomes successful, it can possibly benefit major science disciplines and efforts of NASA to send humans to the Mars and Moon. These minute platforms can potentially be deployed on planetary rovers for detecting small amounts of methane and water, for instance, or it could be utilized as biological or monitoring sensors to maintain the health and safety of astronauts.

In this regard, a unique 3D printing system developed by Ahmed Busnina and his team at Northeastern University in Boston is also fundamental to the effort, supported by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate’s (STMD) Early Career Initiative (ECI).

The new 3D printing system is similar to the printers used for creating newspapers or money, but instead of applying ink, the printer applies nanomaterials onto a substrate in a layer-by-layer fashion to produce extremely small sensors. Eventually, each sensor has the ability to detect temperature, pressure level, and a different type of gas.

Nanomaterials like graphene, carbon nanotubes, molybdenum disulfide and so on, have remarkable physical properties. At extreme conditions, these materials are highly sensitive yet stable. In addition, they are lightweight, require less power, and are toughened against radiation, making them suitable for space applications, stated Sultana.

As part of her collaboration with Northeastern University, Sultana and her team will engineer the sensor platform, establishing which mixture of materials are best suited for determining tiny, parts-per-billion concentrations of ammonia, water, hydrogen, and methane—all crucial in the quest for life across the solar system. Northeastern University will use Sultana’s design to subsequently utilize its Nanoscale Offset Printing System to apply the nanomaterials. Once the sensors are printed, Sultana’s team will functionalize each of them by depositing extra layers of nanoparticles to improve their sensitivity, incorporate the sensors with readout electronics, and finally package the whole platform.

The new method differs radically from how technologists presently manufacture multifunctional sensor platforms. Rather than developing a single sensor at a time and subsequently incorporating it to other components, 3D printing enables technicians to print a series of sensors on a single platform, significantly streamlining the incorporation and packaging process.

In addition, Sultana’s strategy to print on the same silicon wafer partial circuitry is also innovative. This would ultimately result in a wireless communications system that can possibly communicate with ground controllers, further streamlining the design and development of the instrument. After the sensors and wireless antenna are printed, they will be packaged onto a printed circuit board holding a power source, the electronics, and the remaining of the communications circuitry.

The beauty of our concept is that we’re able to print all sensors and partial circuitry on the same substrate, which could be rigid or flexible. We eliminate a lot of the packaging and integration challenges. This is truly a multifunctional sensor platform. All my sensors are on same chip, printed one after another in layers.

Mahmooda Sultana, Associate Branch Head, Systems Engineering Branch, Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA.

Wide-Ranging Uses

The study picks up where other similar efforts funded by NASA ended. Under a number of earlier efforts funded by STMD’s Center Innovation Fund and Goddard’s Internal Research and Development Program, Sultana and her group applied the same method to develop and show separate sensors composed of molybdenum disulfide and carbon nanotubes, among other kinds of materials.

The sensors were found to be quite sensitive, down to low parts per million. With our ECI funding, we are targeting the instrument's sensitivity to parts per billion by improving sensor design and structure,” stated Sultana.

According to Sultana, the project addresses NASA’s requirement for tiny, lightweight, low-power, and extremely sensitive sensors that are capable of distinguishing vital molecules other than by determining the masses of the fragments of a molecule. This method is currently being used by many missions to identify molecules through mass spectrometers.

As a matter of fact, the agency has agreed that upcoming sensors have to detect small concentrations of vapors and gases in the parts per billion level. Even though mass spectrometers are capable of detecting a wide spectrum of molecules—especially valuable for unknown samples—they find it hard to differentiate between some of the vital species, like water, ammonia, and methane. “It’s also difficult to reach the parts per billion or beyond level with them,” she stated.

We’re really excited about the possibilities of this technology. With our funding, we can take this technology to the next level and potentially offer NASA a new way to create customized, multifunctional sensor platforms, which I believe could open the door to all types of mission concepts and uses. The same approach we use to identify gases on a planetary body also could be used to create biological sensors that monitor astronaut health and the levels of contaminants inside spacecraft and living quarters.

Mahmooda Sultana, Technologist, NASA.

Meet Mahmooda Sultana, Associate Branch Head, Systems Engineering Branch at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Mahmooda uses her love of math and puzzles to develop new technologies and miniaturize instruments for NASA missions. (Video credit: NASA)

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