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NSF’s Investment in Chemical Sensing Technologies

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Collaboration among nations is crucial for driving innovation in the face of technological progress. International cooperation plays a vital role in innovation by enabling companies to access knowledge and resources that may otherwise be unavailable. Collaborative efforts can manifest in different forms and levels of interaction, ranging from essential one-way information exchanges to deeply interactive partnerships.

The United States and the European Union governments recognise the importance of enhancing their countries’ competitiveness. This realisation is crucial, as, without coordinated national efforts, both regions have experienced a decline in their market share. The emphasis on the “national level” is significant, as many of these initiatives remain isolated without the benefit of cross-border intelligence-sharing.

Biotechnology plays a significant role in the chemical industry in the U.S., particularly in the direct production of speciality chemicals. Biotechnology is defined as the application of life sciences to chemical synthesis, and it has become increasingly important in the natural production of speciality chemicals, such as citric acid, lactic acid, propane-1, 3-diol, and some amino acids, via fermentation. Biotechnology in the chemical industry offers multiple advantages, including reducing dependence on crude-based chemicals, lowering carbon footprints, and improving sustainability.

In light of this, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) has committed US$10.4 million to propel the development of cutting-edge technologies aimed at tackling diverse challenges in chemical and biological sensing. This initiative has led to the selection of 16 multidisciplinary teams for Phase 1 awards under the NSF Convergence Accelerator’s Track L: Real World Chemical Sensing Applications.

Track L marks a significant milestone as the inaugural collaborative research effort between NSF and two Swedish government agencies—the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet) and Vinnova. This collaboration, facilitated by a memorandum of understanding signed in May 2023, marks the first instance where the Swedish government invests in Swedish researchers collaborating within a U.S.-based team.

The track leverages a vast body of foundational knowledge and recent advancements in chemical sensing, sensor technology, robotics, biomanufacturing, computational modelling, and olfaction to tackle challenges about environmental quality, industrial agriculture, food safety, disease detection and diagnostics, personal care, substance use or misuse, and potential adversarial threats.

Air pollution-related illnesses cost an estimated US$150 billion annually in the United States, resulting in over 100,000 premature deaths per year. These figures highlight the significant impact of air pollution on public health and the economy. The primary causes of air pollution include the combustion of fossil fuels, leading to the release of pollutants like particulate matter (PM), nitrogen dioxide (NO₂), sulfur dioxide (SO₂), and volatile organic compounds (VOC)

Erwin Gianchandani, NSF assistant director for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships (TIP), highlighted, “Challenges associated with chemical signatures are often dynamic and difficult to detect, posing safety and security challenges for our nation.” He added, “Today’s investment in use-inspired and translational research will accelerate the development of scalable chemical sensing and identification technologies that will operate with accuracy, reliability, and speed in real-world situations.”

In the upcoming nine months, each team will refine their initial concepts into proof of concepts, identify additional team members and collaborators, and engage in the Convergence Accelerator’s Phase 1 innovation curriculum. This curriculum imparts essential skills in human-centred design, team science, use-inspired research, early-stage prototyping and communications, storytelling, and pitching. After Phase 1, the teams will present formal proposals and pitches to demonstrate the feasibility of their solutions before progressing to Phase 2.

Douglas Maughan, head of the Convergence Accelerator programme, stated, “We envision creating cost-effective, versatile, and large-scale solutions that can monitor and analyse in real-time and can be deployable across a wide range of indoor and outdoor environments.” He further concluded, “Through collaboration with our Swedish partners, we will also merge innovative ideas, approaches, and technologies to support these goals.”


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