Sensors and instrumentation: Collecting the world’s data

Professor Otto Gregory
Professor Otto Gregory is researching innovative sensor technology.

The ability to detect explosives at airports took on new urgency after 9/11. Rising outbreaks of food-borne illnesses have led public health officials to call for better monitoring. A plethora of smart phones has Americans clamoring for more information about the world around them, from the location of the closest parking space to when the next bus will arrive.

University of Rhode Island researchers understand that delivering such data requires an intricate network of sensors and instrumentation. And they recognize there’s vast room for improving the sensors that measure the health of physical materials, the status of environmental conditions, the composition of biological matter or the density of traffic along a highway.

“Information is frequently taken for granted by our technological society,” Professor Otto Gregory says. “However, it takes interdisciplinary research teams to develop systems that gather and present that information in a meaningful way.”

Gregory leads a team designing sensors for the next generation of jet engines. The flat, thin-film sensors measure temperature, pressure and strain without the messy wiring.

Work is also under way at the University to design smart sensors that monitor fuel cells or detect chemical leaks or terrorist attacks. Civil engineers are spearheading sensors to better monitor traffic conditions, and electrical engineers are finding ways to turn fiber optic cables into millions of tiny sensors.

Research here will also keep us healthy. We are building tiny fluorescent spectrometry sensors to detect biomarkers in blood – the first step toward diagnosing diseases. Because the sensors are the size of a thumbnail, engineers can build palm-sized devices carried by a visiting nurse or offered for sale at the local drugstore.

“These sensors will impact health care in a big way,” Adjunct Professor Constantine Anagnostopoulos says. “They will reduce health care costs because you can do the test at the point of care and they will improve health outcomes by providing on-demand results.”

Anagnostopoulos sensed so much promise in the field that he left retirement for the opportunity to conduct research at the University. Meanwhile, Gregory says he keeps returning to the lab because his technology solves real-world problems.

“As an engineer, you don’t want to work on something that is not going to benefit mankind,” Gregory says.

Otto Gregory
Professor, chemical engineering
Kirk Center for Advanced Technology
94 Upper College Road
Kingston, RI 02881 USA