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Portable device that detects chemical attacks licensed from BYU

A portable device that can detect a chemical attack has been licensed from Brigham Young University to a Utah-based company working in support of the U.S. Department of Defense.

Developed by chemistry professor Milton Lee, this 28-pound device will be produced by Torion Technologies Inc., which is headed by one of Lee’s former students. The agreement between Torion and BYU involves 10 patents for which Lee is inventor or co-inventor.

The device was initially designed for use by soldiers in the field to detect chemical and biological attacks. The list of other applications includes drug investigations, environmental monitoring of water quality and helping first-responders identify hazardous substances.

“Typical systems that do this are large, laboratory systems that require a lot of power,” Lee said. “We have miniaturized the system so we can operate on batteries. Now we can make the measurements and detect hazardous chemicals on the spot instead of sending samples back to the lab.”

While the interior components are highly technical, the system was designed for use by non-scientists. It begins with a syringe-like device that clicks like a pen, extending a tip that collects the sample. The user swipes the tip in air, water or soil, plugs the syringe into the device, and pushes a button.

Inside, the device heats and separates the different chemicals and produces a fingerprint of each. Software then provides a positive identification for each chemical using an on-board library of chemical fingerprints. Within a few minutes, the screen displays names and amounts of any substance that may be potentially dangerous.

Getting a positive identification on the spot sets this device apart from other in-the-field systems, such as those used in airports, which can narrow down the list of possibilities to a class or group of chemicals.

“When you're in a battlefield environment where decision-making is critical, you’d like to know exactly what you’re dealing with,” said Lee, whose work has been funded in large part by the Department of Defense.

As it happens, Torion president Doug Later worked as an assistant in Lee’s lab before earning a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from BYU in 1982. The pair joined efforts at Torion in 2006 when Lee approached Later and asked him to lead the effort to commercialize the device.

Innovation has marked Lee’s 32 years of research and teaching at BYU. On March 4, Lee received a lifetime achievement award for his work in analytical chemistry at an annual conference devoted to laboratory science attended by more than 20,000 scientists.

“Dr. Milton Lee has had a distinguished career at BYU,” said Brent Webb, associate academic vice president at BYU. “He has authored or co-authored more than 500 scientific publications and is the inventor on 20 issued or pending patents. His ability to transfer technology to the marketplace is remarkable.”

Writer: Roxanna Johnson

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