When launching spacecrafts and missiles, small navigational mistakes could lead to catastrophic results. A satellite could spin completely out of orbit, a missile could mistakenly strike a civilian territory, or a spaceship could end up at another planet altogether.
Three Wesleyan researchers are collaborating on the development of a novel sensor that would benefit navigation and several other applications.
The new, hypersensitive acceleration sensor is based on a principle borrowed from nuclear physics and has been developed at Wesleyan. It provides enhanced sensitivity and precision compared to conventional sensors.
“Our underlying concept can be applied in a variety of sensing applications ranging from avionics and earthquake monitoring to bio-sensing,” said study co-author Rodion Kononchuk, postdoctoral physics research associate in Wesleyan’s Wave Transport in Complex Systems Laboratory. “We believe that our results will attract a broad interest from research and engineering communities across a wide range of disciplines, which could result in a realization of next-generation sensors.”
In a June 2021 Science Advances article titled “Enhanced Avionic Sensing Based on Wigner’s Cusp Anomalies,” Kononchuk, along with Tsampikos Kottos, Lauren B. Dachs Professor of Science and Society, professor of physics; Joseph Knee, Beach Professor of Chemistry; and Joshua Feinberg, professor of physics at the University of Haifa in Israel, shared their study’s results.
The Wesleyan team has demonstrated a whopping 60-fold improved performance in acceleration measurements compared to conventional accelerometers (i.e. sensing devices that measure variations in the acceleration). Wesleyan has already supported a provisional patent application for this study.
Kottos, who spearheads the Physics Department’s Wave Transport in Complex Systems Laboratory, says a “good sensor” is characterized by two elements: its high sensitivity to small “perturbations” and its dynamical range. The latter is the ratio of the maximum to the minimum perturbation that a sensor can detect. And the larger the dynamic range, the better it is.
“Think of a spacecraft or missile. When it takes off, it develops high accelerations, but in the voyage, it needs to detect small accelerations in order to correct its trajectory,” Kottos said. “We believe that our sensor has the ability to measure such a large range of accelerations. Moreover, it is simple to implement and does not suffer from excessive noise that can degrade the quality of the measurements—as opposed to some recent proposals of hypersensitive sensing.”
Although the project is heavily physics-based, Kottos and Kononchuk knew they needed a chemist to help turn their theories into a reality. As it turned out, Knee—who is an expert on optical sensing—had laboratory experience that was applicable to the current project.
“It was wonderful to be brought into such an exciting project,” Knee said. “My research area is in laser spectroscopy which requires significant expertise and experimental capabilities in optical physics. Fortunately, my lab had some key capabilities which helped us put together an experimental prototype that ultimately was used to validate the theoretical constructs.”
“Joe’s experimental expertise in the chemistry framework was crucial for building the experimental platform,” Kottos said. “Our initial discussions helped us to better understand what can or cannot be done and allowed us to successfully design the experiment with a limited budget.”
Kottos began research for the new hypersensitive avionic sensor design in 2018 after receiving a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense. The guiding principles were to maximize the sensitivity of the sensor without compromising its dynamical range [i.e. the ratio between the largest and smallest perturbation that a sensor can measure] while making it as cheap and simple to make, as possible.
The current sensor design is approximately 4 inches long, but the size could be reduced depending on the application. Smartphone sensors, for example, measure about 1/4 of an inch, but they are far less sensitive than the design created at Wesleyan. Wesleyan undergraduate Jimmy Clifford ’23 is currently working on simulations to come up with a miniaturized design of this concept.
“Once we have it, either we will have to partner with a fabricator or we will have to off-shore the design and test it at Wesleyan,” Kottos said. “We hope to take this concept to production and hopefully to the marketplace!”
The Why Axis: Cutting-Edge Science at Wesleyan (Wesleyan University Magazine)