NASA is hoping to use new aerosol monitoring technology to keep astronauts breathing easy. The agency, in collaboration with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), selected Applied Particle Technology, LLC from St. Louis, Missouri, as the $100,000 grand-prize winner of its Earth and Space Air Prize Competition.
Competing teams were asked to develop robust, durable, inexpensive, efficient, lightweight, and easy-to-use sensors to detect tiny airborne particles, known as aerosols, and monitor air quality for space and Earth environments.
Breathable air is necessary to sustain humans both on Earth as well as in space. To ensure the health of humans living on Earth as well as those traveling in spacecraft to the Moon or Mars, aerosol sensors are needed to monitor air quality and alert engineers when action is necessary.
More than 20 proposals were submitted, and three finalists were selected. Each finalist was awarded $50,000 to build a functioning prototype in seven months and was then invited to test their designs at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, in Cleveland before a winner was selected.
The winning team consists of Jiaxi Fang and Tandeep Chadha from Applied Particle Technology and Pratim Biswas and Jiayu Li from Washington University in St. Louis’s Aerosol and Air Quality Research Laboratory. Applied Particle Technology specializes in air quality sensors and air treatment systems for environments that require high efficiency removal of aerosols. The team is developing and researching new sensing technologies and calibration techniques with advanced and robust data algorithms to obtain high quality data on particle size and properties for low cost and accurate air quality sensing solutions.
“We are developing new technologies for aerosols and air quality monitoring specifically targeted to help protect people from exposures to harmful airborne pollutants,” said Jiaxi Fang, CEO and Co-Founder of Applied Particles Technology LLC.
There are similarities between Earth-based needs and spacecraft needs for particle sensors, and the Earth and Space Air Prize Challenge combined those requirements into one challenge with multiple applications.
“We have a need at NASA for miniaturized particle accounting instruments, or aerosol instruments, and we’re looking to get the technology development stimulated to the point where we have something that we can use in spaceflight,” said Marit Meyer, research aerospace engineer at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, in Cleveland.
Likewise, RWJF saw an opening to advance its mission to improve health and health care for all in America.
“Our goal is to help build a national Culture of Health where everyone has a fair and just opportunity to live a healthy life,” said Paul Tarini, Senior Program Officer at RWJF. “We know this will take unprecedented – and sometimes unconventional – collaboration. Working with NASA on the prize presented us with a unique chance to explore a fundamental determinant of our health – the air we breathe.”
NASA and RWJF used a prize challenge because they often uncover unique approaches to problems and can provide participants with a unique opportunity to develop ideas while solving problems that can have lasting impacts on the health of humanity.
“This challenge fits perfectly with what we are working on. Our company is trying to develop technologies to help measure harmful airborne pollutants in a scalable way that is easy for everyone to access and understand,” said Fang. “This was a perfect way for us to bring in our technology and validate it along with an organization like NASA.”
Looking ahead, the hope is that the winner of this competition will be able to work toward securing a technology demonstration onboard the International Space Station.
Meyer said that demonstrating this technology on the space station could help increase the technology readiness level and build confidence for potential operational use in a spacecraft environment. The sensor could then be a candidate for use by a commercial space company, in a smart city application or on future NASA missions.
The intent of this challenge was to catalyze the development of new aerosol sensor technology that goes beyond advancing existing technology. The prototype from Applied Particle Technology demonstrates that challenges like this can result in new approaches to aerosol technology with potential for operational use in space.
“This challenge gives us the opportunity to have not just evolutionary aerosol technology, but revolutionary aerosol technology at our disposal at NASA,” said Meyer.
The Earth and Space Air Prize was part of NASA Solve, a gateway for everyone to participate in NASA’s mission through challenges, prize competitions and citizen science. Leveraging its NASA Open Innovation Services vehicle, NASA contracted with The Common Pool, LLC, who served as prize administrator for the competition.
Filed Under: Aerospace + defense