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Swager, of chemistry, wins $500K Lemelson-MIT Prize

Timothy M. Swager
Timothy M. Swager
Photo courtesy / Lemelson-MIT Program
Lee Lynd
Lee Lynd
Photo courtesy / Mascoma Corporation

Timothy M. Swager, head of the Department of Chemistry and the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry at MIT, is the winner of the $500,000 2007 Lemelson-MIT Prize for inventing sensors that detect vapors of common bomb-making chemicals such as TNT.

The Lemelson-MIT Prize is the most prestigious cash prize for invention in the United States. This year, the prize was slated for a mid-career inventor rising in his or her field.

"The originality, practicality and timeliness of Dr. Swager's inventions made him a stand-out candidate for this year's $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize," said Merton Flemings, director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, which has given the award to an accomplished inventor for the past 12 years. "For instance, soldiers and Marines in Iraq are already benefiting from his explosive-detection inventions, and his molecular wire inventions will likely find application in a wide range of healthcare, environmental and security areas."

Among his many inventions, Swager invented amplifying fluorescent polymers that can attract nitro aromatic molecules, a class of chemicals typically used in explosives. In most molecular sensors, the strength of the emitted signal is proportional to the number of target molecules reaching the sensor. Therefore, they are usually not sensitive enough to detect very small trace amounts of the target substance.

Swager reasoned that if he designed a polymer chain that would carry a signal except when a single target molecule struck the chain, he would have an extraordinarily sensitive detector. Thus, if the target molecule were TNT, a bomb detection device could be constructed from the polymer.

In 2001, Swager licensed his patented polymer technology to Nomadics, now a unit of ICx Technologies, for use in that company's Fido Explosives Detector, so named for its ability to simulate a bomb-sniffing dog.

Currently, American soldiers in Iraq are using Fido devices attached to a robotic platform for deployment to hard-to-reach and dangerous areas and as portable, hand-held monitors to analyze people, clothing and automobiles.

On May 2-5, Swager and Lee Lynd, professor of engineering and adjunct professor of biology at Dartmouth College and the first recipient of the new $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability, will participate in the first-ever EurekaFest, a multiday celebration of the inventive spirit presented by the Lemelson-MIT Program in partnership with the Museum of Science.

The Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability recognizes inventors whose products and processes enhance economic opportunity and community well-being while protecting and restoring the natural environment.

In the United States today, fuel ethanol is derived from corn, which is available in limited quantities and consumes substantial amounts of fossil energy to produce. Lynd has identified one-step fermentation of cellulosic biomass into ethanol or other biofuels--a process configuration known as consolidated bioprocessing--as a potentially transformative breakthrough for low-cost processing.

In 2006, with funding from Khosla Ventures and other financiers, Lynd co-founded Mascoma Corp., in Cambridge, Mass. The company develops processes for cost-effectively converting cellulosic biomass, such as grass, wood, wheat and rice straw into ethanol that can be used for fuel.

In his nomination letter for Lynd for the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability, renowned venture capitalist Vinod Khosla said he has become a "big believer" in the ability of ethanol to reduce America's dependence on petroleum. "While corn-based ethanol is a great start toward this goal, the ability to convert cellulosic feedstocks to ethanol is the Holy Grail," he wrote.

For more information on EurekaFest, visit

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 4, 2007 (download PDF).

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