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Notes from the Lab


To combat the threat of biological warfare, MIT researchers are developing advanced sensors to rapidly detect and identify biological agents such as anthrax.

In one project, a fluorescence sensor uses a miniature laser to illuminate individual bioparticles in the air with ultraviolet light. By measuring fluorescent light reemitted from the particles, the sensor can distinguish threat particles from naturally occurring particles, such as dust or pollen, and issue an alarm in 30 seconds. The fluorescence sensor work is led by Dr. Charles Primmerman of Lincoln Laboratory and is funded by the Army and the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). The device has been successfully field-tested.

In another project, researchers led by Dr. Mark Hollis of Lincoln Lab and Associate Professor Jianzhu Chen of biology are developing a bioelectronic sensor. This device uses living cells that are genetically engineered so that a cell emits light when a particular bioagent touches it. The light is then detected by a miniature imager and used to identify individual bioagents.

The sensor is made possible by miniature fluid-processing technology developed at Lincoln Lab. The technology flows suspect particles past the sensor cells and flows nutrients to nourish the cells. DARPA and OSD fund the bioelectronic sensor work.

-MIT Lincoln Laboratory Lab Notes


R&D (research and development) managers in large organizations generally divide up their total budget based on the relative merit of individual projects. But MIT Energy Laboratory researchers now suggest that they should also focus on the different phases of research going on in their program -- for example, basic research, applied research and development.

A new system dynamics model can show them how to ensure that each phase receives sufficient funding to yield a steady flow of projects toward commercialization. Given historical data on the behavior of projects in each phase -- the average probability of success, the time required for completion and the project cost -- the model calculates the optimal allocation of funds among the phases and the number of products that will reach commercial readiness each year.

The model can also quantify the effects of not following that allocation. For example, it shows that overfunding the final phase increases the number of products in the near term but decreases that number over the long term as output from the underfunded earlier phases dwindles. It can also quantify the potential benefits of making special investments -- for example, in machinery to speed up productivity in one phase.

Thus far, the researchers, led by Professor Kent Hansen of nuclear engineering, have demonstrated their model using publicly available data on R&D in the pharmaceutical industry. They are now working with US Department of Defense managers to study DOD budget allocation among aircraft-related projects. This research was partially supported by the DOD.

-Nancy Stauffer, Energy Laboratory

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 25, 1999.

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