The most notable thing in David McIlroy”s lab is the amount of tin foil. It may look like the aliens are coming, but McIlroy is using it for another purpose.
McIlroy, a physicist at the University of Idaho, is using it as an inexpensive medium to grow nanosprings. Nanosprings, which he said look like an old-school phone cord under a microscope, are the next big step in bomb detection.
“We are conducting basic research with an end game at being able to construct an explosive sensor,” McIlroy said.
He said the trick is creating a sensor that is able to identify explosives without responding to everyday things in the air.
McIlroy said the ideal sensor will have that discrimination, but also have low power. On top of this, it should also be small enough where it could be mounted on an autonomous vehicle.
He said nanosprings may be the answer, and thanks to a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, he is exploring this possibility.
They”re made out of nonconductive glass, which is then coated with a conductive material. He said this gives them the unique electrical conductivity they need. He is exploiting this characteristic to create ubersensitivity to explosive materials.
The special electrical characteristics of the nanosprings make them sensitive to very small amounts of explosives, he said. It wasn”t something he originally thought they would have.
“In fact, a lot of the basic science came out of that surprise,” McIlroy said. “Understanding why they were so sensitive allowed us to delve into the world of physics and explain their properties.”
Part of the initial confusion and surprise arose from the fact that that the technology is so hard to control, McIlroy said.
“What we have is something highly disordered,” he said. “Something you have no control over, like a classroom of five-year-olds you”re trying to teach quantum physics.”
He said he discovered this disorder, or lack of apparent order, actually gives the sensors better sensing power. McIlroy said this is the perfect example of emergent materials: something new resulting from disorder and chaos.
Another unique aspect of this research is the use of light with McIlory”s sensors and nanosprings. Initially, McIlroy”s lab was debatably the only one in the sensor field applying traditional light principles, he said. They applied principles of light to electrical type developments. When used with their devices, he said it greatly improved their sensitivity.
“We were the only ones in the sensing world looking at that, and demonstrating that it would work,” he said.
McIlroy said now they”re trying to fit together the pieces of the puzzle.
“The question is, can we now bring those three things together to make the ultimate goal,” McIlory said.
And about all that aluminum foil?
“Aluminum foil is the physicist”s duct tape,” McIlroy said with a laugh.