A scientist who created bomb-sniffing technology to help clear land mines won the Lemelson-MIT Prize Monday, a decade after he began developing it under a Pentagon-funded research project.
Today, U.S. soldiers in Iraq are using Timothy Swager's handheld device to scan people and automobiles for traces of bomb-making materials or for hidden explosives that can be detected through telltale chemical vapors.
Mobile military robots have also fitted with Swager's sensing equipment to find explosives in hard-to-reach and dangerous areas.
Swager, head of the Department of Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, won the $500,000 prize for his work in developing the explosives-sniffing technology and other inventions. The prize recognizes people who turn their ideas into inventions that help change the world.
"Troops were getting killed, and they needed everything they could get their hands on," said Swager, 45. "That really catapulted this technology forward."
Swager worked with colleagues to invent synthetic material that attracts chemicals like TNT typically used in explosives. The invention is capable of detecting minute traces of explosives at chemical concentrations as low as a few parts per trillion.
Financial obstacles, rather than technical ones, have so far prevented the invention's use in helping pinpoint the location of old land mines, Swager said.
In 2001, Swager licensed his patented technology to Nomadics, now a unit of ICx Technologies, for use in that company's Fido Explosives Detector, named for its ability to simulate a bomb-sniffing dog.
"Within some classes of chemicals, it can actually smell as well as a dog," Swager said.
The technology can be equipped on military robots produced by two Massachusetts firms, Burlington-based iRobot Corp. and Waltham-based Foster-Miller Inc.
The 13-year-old Lemelson-MIT program also honored Lee Lynd as the winner of its new $100,000 Award for Sustainability, for work that has the potential to improve global quality of life and protect the environment.
Lynd, a professor of engineering at Dartmouth College and co-founder of Mascoma Corp., received the award for inventions that convert materials such as grass, wood, wheat and rice straw into ethanol for fuel.
Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife, Dorothy, founded the nonprofit Lemelson-MIT Program in 1994.