UT Receives NASA Grant To Protect Astronauts

U.S. Rep. John Duncan presented a check for $1.48 million to the University of Tennessee Center for Environmental Biotechnology Wednesday.

The money, a federal grant from NASA, will support UT’s development of sensors that can warn astronauts about the presence of harmful compounds inside spacecraft.

Dr. Gary Sayler, center director, said their sensors use bioluminescent microorganisms that glow when exposed to minute traces of volatile organic compounds in the air inside spacecraft during manned missions in orbit. Sayler’s research team has proven that sensors can detect specific chemical agents like ammonia and toluene at parts per billion levels.

“We think we can build a device that will help astronauts continuously monitor the health of their environment,” Sayler said. “Currently they don’t have such a device because available space and electricity are at such a premium in space.

“The new device could provide enormous capacity for monitoring the environment in orbit.”

This system is ideally suited to the International Space Station, Sayler said, because of the restrictions on space and power consumption in orbit.

“These sensors offer continuous on-line, real-time monitoring in a low-power, low-maintenance environment using a local area network aboard the spacecraft,” Sayler said.

They also could be used on the space shuttle and have potential to monitor unsafe compounds in buildings or other facilities, Sayler said.

Duncan said UT is ideally suited to do research like that being done in the biotechnology center.

“This is groundbreaking research that’s being done right here at UT and we hope in some small way to be able to call attention to that,” Duncan said.

“I think many people in East Tennessee don’t realize all the good and great things that are going on in this area.”

CEB provides multidisciplinary training in environmental biotechnology, involving faculty from engineering, ecology, microbiology, medicine, toxicology, Earth and planetary sciences, as well as researchers from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

UT named the CEB as a Center of Excellence in 2001 to help “push the envelope” of creative and pioneering research.