A California company unveiled a device on Thursday based on NASA technology that it said could better detect trace amounts of anthrax and was scheduled for testing by the U.S. government.
A California company unveiled a device on Thursday based on NASA technology that it said could better detect trace amounts of anthrax and was scheduled for testing by the U.S. government. Universal Detection Technology said the device, called the Anthrax Smoke Detector, was ready to be sold commercially and would be tested in September for use in government facilities such as post offices. The device, which employs technology developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is a fusion of an air sampler developed to detect pollution and a spectrometer that can detect a molecule found only in bacteria, the company said. The UDT detector is competing with Northrop Grumman Corp.’s anthrax detection system that uses DNA sequencing to find the deadly spores. Amir Ettehadieh, director of research and development for the Beverly Hills, California-based company, said a single detector could monitor the air in a building the size of the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, where the device was displayed for the first time at a news conference. JPL developed the technology for space missions, including the current Mars rover mission, to ensure that the vehicles did not carry bacteria spores from Earth into space. The company obtained an exclusive license from JPL after the 2001 anthrax attacks on the U.S. Postal Service, and plans to work with the space agency to develop detectors for other biohazards, Dr. Leonard Makowka, UDT’s science advisor, said. The anthrax detector, which resembles a small wall safe, is sensitive to concentrations of as little as 50 spores-per-liter of sampled air, and will raise an alarm within 15 minutes of a spike in bacteria levels, Ettehadieh said. The device can be used only in buildings that have combined heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems. It will also detect spikes in other types of bacterial spores other than anthrax, he said. “The machine will hit its threshold much quicker than a person breathing (anthrax) all day,” he said, adding that humans must breathe in about 3,000 spores to become infected. Each unit costs $45,000 but the price is expected to drop when the company begins mass-producing them later in the year, he said. The first few units were sold to an Italian company, which plans to resell them to the Italian government, Ettehadieh said. UDT is in “advanced discussions” to supply the devices to the Port Authority of New York, he said. The company also expects to clinch a contract with the U.S. government after it conducts tests at a model town at the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, Ettehadieh said. Shares in UDT closed up 5 cents at 97 cents on the over-the-counter bulletin board. The stock has posted a more than four-fold gain in value over the course of the last year. (Source: Reuters News, May 2004)