Published: 14 September 2016

New gas sensor technology wins IAA funding

Fluid sensor experts at Surrey have won an Impact Acceleration Account grant to develop a prototype sensor capable of detecting gases in a time-sensitive way – which could assist doctors in detecting lung problems.

The research, led by Dr David Birch of the Department of Mechanical Engineering Sciences, is being conducted in collaboration with Surrey Sensors Limited (SSL) – a University spin-out company – and researchers at Kings College Hospital. The Impact Acceleration Account (IAA) grant of £20,000 provided by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), together with support from SSL, will be used over the next three months to explore and develop the technology.

"Beyond healthcare, there are a number of other sectors where this device could be useful, such as environmental and air quality monitoring." - Dr David Birch

The new sensor uses high voltage to convert a sample of gas into plasma, and measures its electrical characteristics. This technique could offer significant benefits over the currently available alternatives. Infrared absorption meters commonly used to measure gas contaminants are slow, taking up to 30 seconds to respond, and need to be tuned to specific contaminants.

The technology, which will eventually take the form of a small hand-held device, responds to the presence of contaminants almost instantly. This means that it could tell a doctor not only how gas exchange is working within a patient’s lungs during a single breath, but also about each part of each breath (and therefore how the lungs' gas exchange is working).

Dr Birch explains, “Currently there’s no simple technology to measure how gas exchange works within the lungs, which is why Kings College Hospital is interested in exploring this technology.

“Beyond healthcare, there are a number of other sectors where this device could be useful, such as environmental and air quality monitoring. One of its benefits is that, unlike other sensors, it can work in places with very high or very low pressure, or in a hazardous or corrosive environment – the electrodes are similar to those of a spark plug, and that can be located inside the cylinders of a car engine!”

During the IAA project the research team will explore the sensor’s performance characteristics further and develop a production-ready prototype.

The IAA funding follows a previous successful project by Dr Birch to develop the ‘sneezometer’, a highly sensitive spirometer which is currently being trialled with SEHTA (the South East Health Technologies Alliance). The success of this and other projects which were part of an initial IAA of just over £1 million has led to the EPSRC renewing funding for a further 18 months until March 2017.

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