"You could see that terrorist attacks were changing, from being politically motivated, to being carried out by groups that really just wanted to inflict harm and create damage," says Mike McLoughlin, of APL's National Security Technology Department and member of the team working with the APL Research and Technology Development Center on the system, called the Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometer. "Last September 11 demonstrated that the U.S. was very vulnerable to these kinds of attacks . . . [but] it was a vulnerability we have already worried about and were trying to address knowing this was a critical area where APL could contribute."
After seven years of development, that contribution is the heart of a licensing agreement that creates APL's sixth start-up company, Matrix Instruments. The small Northern Virginia firm plans to augment its engineering staff and move closer to APL's campus in Laurel, Md. The firm is preparing to usher the "TOF" system through field tests, deliver it quickly to eager users, and work with Lab inventors to find medical, agricultural and other uses beyond homeland defense.
"The technology is great," says John Hale, a director and the vice president of legal affairs for Matrix Instruments. "Once commercialized I believe it will be revolutionary."
A System of Systems
The Matrix license—put together by APL's Office of Technology Transfer—covers a package of nearly 20 Lab-invented sensors, devices and techniques related to the TOF Mass Spectrometer representing the work of more than 60 Lab researchers. Mass spectrometry itself has been around for years, but the APL device features advances in analysis, signal processing and high-speed digitizing, new techniques for ion formation and energy-focusing, and innovative sampling and ionization schemes.
Work on TOF Mass Spectrometry at the Lab is sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and internal funding through Technology Transfer grants. The system was developed to be a portable "universal" sensor for analyzing biological aerosols either in an urban setting—in buildings, perhaps—-or on the battlefield. It's a top weapon in APL's growing counterproliferation arsenal—an electronic sentry designed to thwart a chemical or biological attack by immediately characterizing the released agents and rapidly identifying the exposed populations.
The Dry Approach
The challenge for APL researchers has been to reduce bulky mass spectrometers used in lab settings to smaller instruments that can do the same thing—and, if possible, do it better and much faster.
So far, they're succeeding. The APL system is fully automatic: It collects air, prepares the sample, sends it into the mass spectrometer for analysis and provides the results—whether that sample contained harmful agents—within minutes. There's little need for someone to operate the system other than to change the medium that transports the samples—an ordinary VHS videotape. "You change the tape as you would with your VCR at home," says McLoughlin. "Everything else is automated, so that the operator doesn't have to be highly trained to run the system or interpret the results."
Other than a small amount of laser-absorbing chemical sprayed on the tape to facilitate analysis, the process is completely dry. McLoughlin says this marks a shift in biological analysis. "Most biological analysis is based on wet chemistry, mixing a sample with certain fluids and looking for a color change or some other reaction. But using fluids in the field is hard, since you have to worry about environmental conditions, things freezing or getting too hot, or reagents breaking down. And it takes time."
APL scientists Wayne Bryden and Harvey Ko took a more solid approach: put the sample on tape and move that into the analyzer. "When we started that idea, a lot of people thought it was nuts," McLoughlin admits. "But the tape is a fairly inert material, so it doesn't interfere with the mass spectrometry at all. We're still looking at other things-future evolutions that might work better than videotape—but it's our first attempt, and it's worked out quite well."
And it's fast. Some analyzers require hours just to prepare a sample; the entire APL method takes less than ten minutes, and researchers believe they can speed that up. Users can also take the tape back to a lab for additional analysis, a valuable opportunity lost when a contaminant is mixed with and altered by a reagent in some systems. And the Lab has assembled an impressive library of pathogen "signatures" that allows users to quickly compare and identify samples.
Teamwork and Opportunity
The field device now in the works resembles a home entertainment system: up to three 19-inch-high stacked modules with data ports, a slot for the tape and a monitor to read the data if need be. It could operate continuously for days, a significant advantage over current technologies. "These would be outdoors, hardened to military specifications, able to sit in the back of a vehicle," Hale envisions. "Users could put them wherever they need them, and they will either provide the data on the spot or transmit it to another location."
APL staffers will work with Matrix engineers to prepare the system, on a fast schedule, with an ambitious goal of putting a TOF Mass Spectrometer in the field by next summer. The partners are also examining other uses such as building a device for feedlots and other agricultural areas to monitor for foot-and-mouth, mad cow or other diseases that afflict livestock. The Lab team will also continue working on
the next-generation TOF system, extending an effort that
has included more than 60 people across several APL departments.
"DARPA has been aggressive and supportive of this program through a long development process," McLoughlin says. "We really want to show how well the technology works—and we're just about there, getting ready to test it in various places—but it's not DARPA's job to commercialize it. Matrix is doing just that. We're very happy to have them stepping up to the plate and we're looking at some exciting opportunities."
"This is just the first license for the TOF technology portfolio," says Mr. J. Bacon, of APL's Office of Technology Transfer. "APL is currently in negotiation with a number of other companies."
© 2002 The Johns Hopkins University