A sense of smell is an effective way to gather a wealth of information almost instantly. Imagine, then, the possibilities of “electronic sniffing”— a detection technique identified and refined by solid state physics. Data — ranging from food quality to bomb or hazardous material identification — is gathered by devices that analyze small chemical signatures in the air. Led by Director Vladimir Dobrokhotov, Ph.D., researchers at Western Kentucky University’s Applied Physics Institute continue to explore the possibilities of “electronic sniffing,” leading to exciting applications in several industries.
From bomb detection to food quality — how the research evolved
When the Applied Physics Institute was founded in 1994, radiation and nuclear research were the primary areas of focus. That included bomb detection using high‑energy particles to scan cargo containers and scan through walls and other obstacles, work that soon drew the interest of the Department of Defense and FBI.
Nearly a decade later, the research emphasis shifted to condensed matter physics and solid state physics.
“Naturally, we continued the idea of applying those methods to security and defense, as far as using trace detection methods to identify hazardous objects,” said Dobrokhotov.
The research also prompted the question of additional applications outside of the defense industry.
“Bomb detection is an obvious application, but we can go beyond that and think about food quality, air quality, medical diagnostics by breath — basically process control for an industry, especially if the industry requires careful analysis of chemical compounds,” said Dobrokhotov.
Consider a recent API project funded by the Kentucky Commercialization Fund — a wearable monitor designed for first responders. The device combines an electronic sniffer and mobile connectivity to help first responders and supervisors identify potential hazards in the area. And with the built-in GPS capabilities of a mobile device, problem areas can be quickly pinpointed to minimize the risk of harmful outcomes.
API researchers are also examining how electronic sniffing can improve food quality analysis. The idea that sparked the research? Current consumer behavior.
“Think about how we all check the quality of food,” Dobrokhotov said. “If it’s in the grocery store, we look at the sticker. But then it sits in our fridge and we’re not sure if it’s good or not. Our natural move is to check the smell, but I started thinking, maybe we can do the same thing electronically and this will be a more reliable method than using your nose.”
Other API research and development projects are typically intended for businesses or organizations within an industry. The food quality project (supported by a grant from Kentucky Commercialization Fund) is one that extends to the consumer, equipping them with an electronic sniffing device that they could use in their homes.
Planting the seed of an idea
API’s current food quality research isn’t just a prime example of work that has benefits (and applications) for both an industry and consumers. It also offers a glimpse into the project process. For many scientists, embarking on a research project is not unlike the fabled chicken and the egg scenario. Except in this case, the question is what comes first — the research idea or the funding?
“It’s mostly intuition, but it’s also a combination of browsing current grant opportunities,” Dobrokhotov said. “But generally speaking, we start from something. When we started the Department of Defense grant, it [bomb detection] was mostly an idea, and this idea became a device. Then, with that device, you start talking with other groups and companies, and they express interest, so R&D continues. It’s like growing from a seed.”
With a team of scientists and students, API can pursue multiple projects at once, which is especially helpful given that some research requires in-depth testing that can span years, even decades. Consider one possible project in the pipeline: medical devices that analyze breath samples (as opposed to blood or urine) to make a medical diagnosis. Yet Dobrokhotov said a device like that requires a complex and expensive certification process, along with years of research and clinical studies.
“It could be 10 years or more before this is available,” he said.
Taking coursework beyond the classroom
Part of what enables API to maintain a consistent project pipeline is student involvement. Student researchers are hired as API employees, giving them a hands-on opportunity to apply their skills and coursework in a real-world environment.
“API is non-traditional university research compared to other university labs, where the final outcome of research is publication,” Dobrokhotov said. “API is different because we’re delivering products, and that’s why training at API for students is very valuable. They get this raw knowledge from their courses, then they have a chance to apply that knowledge in the lab.”
Through that hands-on approach, API also helps prepare students for future employment. Many students go on to work at companies that previously collaborated with API. And at API, students have an opportunity to be involved in all parts of the research and project process, including building records, device testing and technical documentation, expanding their skills and experience so that they’re better prepared to make a seamless transition into post-college career employment.
And speaking of experience? Students don’t necessarily need to have robust resumes to work at API. Instead, Dobrokhotov said, it comes down to three primary traits.
“We’re looking for gifted and interested students who want to work with API,” he said. “But it’s not necessarily about knowledge and skills. Students also need to have motivation, dedication and persistence. If those three components are present, I’m positive that the student can work here and achieve a lot.”
Dobrokhotov recalled one example: a student who came to work at API while pursuing a math major and a physics minor. He was “an amazing employee and achieved a lot,” Dobrokhotov said, and went on to receive his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.
That anecdote illustrates the variety of lessons learned at API. Research is the primary focus, naturally, yet students learn other life skills that benefit them for decades to come.
“API is a welcoming environment with flexible scheduling — we understand the coursework and give students an opportunity to step away as needed,” said Dobrokhotov. “Naturally, all of them find a way to combine work and school. The most important thing is motivation — then you can find a way to make time for everything.”