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05 Sep

Teaming Up for Success—NASA Glenn Research Center and Case Western Reserve

Help Firefighters Breathe Easier with Mechanical Engineering Sensors

Imagine you're a firefighter and you’ve successfully put out a blaze. The carbon monoxide sensor on your gear indicates it’s safe, so you take off your mask and breathe easier, knowing the fire’s out and the danger’s gone. Or, at least that’s what you think.

The truth is: A firefighter’s team is often at greater risk during the cleanup phase after a fire than during the fire itself and vulnerable to a lot more than carbon monoxide poisoning alone.

Fire consumes everything in its path and kicks up dangerous chemicals and particulates, releasing them into the air, which should be detected by a firefighter’s sensor. However, the sensors used in mechanical engineering today can’t yet detect these respiratory dangers.

That’s why researchers at Case Western Reserve University have teamed up with the NASA Glenn Research Center and firefighters across the nation to remedy this. Researchers will spend the next three years designing and testing mechanical engineering sensors, with the goal of creating a new model that can protect firefighters from respiratory damage and illnesses.

Professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering Fumiaki Takahashi is leading this team of researchers who will expand on various NASA departments’ compact particulate and gas sensors, which are used to detect fire outbreaks in the International Space Station.

To make these prototypes, the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has awarded the group a $1.5 million grant to improve firefighters’ safety.

If successful, the team’s new sensor will be capable of detecting additional substances like formaldehyde and acrolein that can be released in both structural and forest fires and potentially harm firefighters. The effects, as you can imagine, could prove life-saving to firefighters worldwide one day.

This research partnership with firefighter teams and the NASA Glenn Research Center is just one of several cutting-edge research efforts to improve sensors through mechanical engineering. Case Western Reserve engineering researchers are also working to:

  • Help fight cancer with an optical biosensor 1 million times more sensitive than the current industry standard1
  • Make wireless sensors and sensor networks that can be integrated into existing materials like tech-savvy “smart buildings”2
  • Create a portable sensor that can assess a person’s clotting ability almost 100 times faster than current methods, using only a single drop of blood3

And that is still only a glimpse of our innovations in progress. Check out some of the other life-changing research projects and industry partnerships engineers at Case Western Reserve are working on.


1Retrieved on July 17, 2017, from engineering.case.edu/sensitive-biosensor
2Retrieved on July 17, 2017, from engineering.case.edu/Feng-smart-building-sensors
3Retrieved on July 17, 2017, from engineering.case.edu/ClotChip