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Virginia Tech CAREER Project
March 13, 2008

Developing a credit card-sized gas chromatography platform that can analyze volatile compounds within seconds is the next step for Virginia Tech College of Engineering researcher Masoud Agah, who has received a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award to support his research.

Dr. Agah, an assistant professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and an affiliate member of the Department of Mechanical Engineering faculty, recently secured a five-year CAREER grant worth $400,000. This is the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious award for creative junior faculty who are considered to be future leaders in their academic fields.

Gas chromatography is the primary technique used in a number of scientific, medical, and industrial settings to separate and analyze volatile compounds in gases, liquids, and solids.

Currently, gas chromatography systems consist of a gas tank, sample injector, separation column, and gas detector. Samples to be analyzed are vaporized and injected into the column, where compounds are separated and then passed over the detector. Conventional systems tend to be large, fragile, and relatively expensive table-top instruments.

Dr. Agah, who established the Microelectromechanical Systems Laboratory at Virginia Tech shortly after joining the university in 2005, is attempting to develop a gas chromatographic architecture that will fit on a platform the size of a credit card and will separate and analyze a complex range of compounds in only a few seconds.

To create this new architecture, which he has named GC Matrix, Dr. Agah is employing laboratory technology. In his laboratory, he is developing gas chromatographic columns with heaters, temperature sensors, pressure sensors, and thermal conductivity detectors that can fit on micro-chips. He already has developed columns that can separate a limited number of volatile compounds and chemical warfare agent simulants in less than 10 seconds. In addition to significantly improving the speed, portability, and performance, the GC Matrix will consume far less power than conventional instruments.

Every CAREER award project includes an educational component. Dr. Agah will develop a new university laboratory course on Microelectromechanical Systems Laboratory technology. He also is working with Virginia Tech’s National Society of Black Engineers and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Teacher in Service Program to establish the High-School Microsystems Engineering Program.

Before joining the Virginia Tech faculty in 2005, Dr. Agah conducted research at the National Science Foundation Center for Wireless Integrated MicroSystems at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he developed Microelectromechanical Systems Laboratory -based gas chromatography columns for environmental monitoring applications. He completed his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Michigan and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Sharif University of Technology in Iran.

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