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Volume 5, Issue 2
December 2012

Promising New Commercial Technology Applications for Oxygen Sensor Prototype

  • Ruby Nandini Ghosh, Ph.D.
  • Associate Professor
  • Department of Physics and Astronomy, College of Natural Science
  • Adjunct Associate Professor
  • Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, College of Engineering
Picture of Ruby Ghosh

Developing new technology takes curiosity, patience, creativity, intellect, and tenacity. After discovery, researchers often confront the challenges of scaling up their products or applications for introduction into useful, marketable, and profitable ventures.

Ruby Ghosh, associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, thrives on the intellectual challenge of basic physics and how it applies in everyday concepts. She has developed a groundbreaking oxygen sensor that has the potential to advance the work of those involved with aquaculture and beyond, and is now facing the next challenge of moving this technology into the market.

It has been a fifteen year pursuit for Ghosh. At first it was a scientific curiosity: Could the properties of inorganic optical indicators be harnessed to detect oxygen? The answer was yes. A novel sensing material was synthesized but implementation as an oxygen sensor required expensive technology—such as a laser—that created not only financial hurdles but portability and reliability issues as well.

Ghosh's interest in optical and electronic devices dates back to her studies at Cornell University, where she earned a doctorate in applied and engineering physics, with graduate work in solid state physics and electrical engineering. She was a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the Fundamental Electrical Measurements Group. Her blend of interests was influenced by her father, an engineer. "I am an applied physicist, meaning that I like to see how physics can be used to solve real world problems," said Ghosh.

Her first work at MSU was in 1996 with optical oxygen sensing using metal-halide inorganic indicators at the Center for Sensor Materials, an NSF Materials Research Science and Engineering Center. She had been recruited from the technical staff at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, where she was in the Planar Lightguide Circuit Research Department of Lucent Technologies.

Evolving Research Development

In 2002 Ghosh and co-investigator (the late) Gregory Baker from the Department of Chemistry received a $600,000 federal grant from the National Energy Technology Laboratory within the Department of Energy to research fiber optical micro-detectors for oxygen sensing in power plants.

Picture of Ruby Ghosh

Building on these first efforts, Ghosh was awarded a $914,000 grant in 2006 from the Michigan 21st Century Jobs Fund for "Dissolved Oxygen Sensor for Continuous (24/7) Monitoring in Aquaculture Applications." In addition to Ghosh, the interdisciplinary team was composed of Per Askeland, Composite Materials and Structures Center; Gregory Baker, Department of Chemistry; Chris Weeks, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife; and Reza Loloee, Department of Physics and Astronomy. Their team included two commercialization partners.

The work centered on developing a cost-effective and reliable oxygen sensor to measure the dissolved oxygen concentration in the water of fish hatcheries and aquaculture farms. Aquaculture, also known as aquafarming, is a rapidly expanding sector of agriculture worldwide wherein aquatic animals, such as shrimp and fish, are raised in farm-like settings. Dissolved oxygen levels play a vital role in determining the overall well-being of fish production, and oxygen sensors contribute critical data involved in everyday decision making. However, standard dissolved oxygen sensors, known as electrochemical or polarographic, do not possess the attributes necessary for continuous field operations.

Optical dissolved oxygen (DO) sensor technology was introduced in the 1970s as a response to the shortcomings of the existing, polarographic sensors. New technologies continue to emerge, enabling applications not only in traditional areas such as industrial fermentation but also in environmental water quality monitoring and in biological research. However, these devices have shortcomings that make their use in aquaculture problematic.

Ghosh and her colleagues focused on those challenges. Their optical dissolved oxygen sensor system employs a sensing film (patent pending) that obviates the problems with existing DO sensors and employs low-cost electro-optical components. The device is cost-effective, stable, and durable. While that may sound logical, it has taken skillful research and persistence to build and test a prototype that combines materials designed to stabilize sensor response in challenging aqueous media with control electronics capable of enduring long-term operation in actual outdoor field settings.

Research to Idea to Market

Picture of Ruby Ghosh

As the research progressed, Ghosh received input and encouragement to commercialize. She received targeted support grants for technology development through the Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies. During the summer of 2011, MSU Technologies encouraged Ghosh to attend the Michigan Green Technology Entrepreneurship Academy, a one-week crash course designed for university science and engineering faculty as well as students who are interested in developing businesses based on their university research. Ghosh was introduced by the workshop facilitator to Gerald Roston of Pair of Docs Consulting.

Seeing the commercial potential of her technology, Ghosh decided to create Opti O2 LLC in the fall of 2011, and subsequently teamed up with Roston to develop a business plan.

While the technology was initially developed for the aquaculture sector, in designing their business plan Ghosh and Roston expanded the potential commercialization landscape. Oxygen is ubiquitous. Opportunities exist in biomedical research to understand the metabolics of tumor growth, beer/wine production, industrial fermentation for pharmaceuticals and the biotechnology industry, and environmental monitoring of rivers, lakes and coastal waters.

"Potential applications for Ruby's technology are still under investigation, but we do know that major benefits include the low production costs, the strong reliability, and the accuracy," says Roston. "We are in the process of determining which of the many possibilities will provide us with the shortest path to revenue."

According to Roston, the prototype developed by Ghosh is unique because of the proprietary sensing film which allows the sensor to be used repetitively over very long periods of time without human intervention, thereby making it cost effective for end users. That hasn't been the case with previous oxygen sensor technology.

"To put it simply, everything about this technology to date has been geared around using apples and we are introducing oranges," said Roston.

Jeff Smith is co-director of the New Economy Division of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP). He worked with Ghosh to access specialized services available to early stage companies from the Michigan Business Accelerator Fund.

"We are fortunate to have world-class research right here in East Lansing that leads to the newest technologies and commercial products. Opti O2 LLC represents the successful transition of research to idea to market. In partnering with the Small Business Technology and Development Center, LEAP has worked with Ruby and her team to move the idea more quickly into the market using the Business Accelerator Fund to more quickly identify target markets and customers. We are excited about every opportunity to leverage unique intellectual property to grow the base of our regional economy," said Smith.

Ghosh is enthusiastic about Opti O2 LLC and the potential for numerous paths it can follow.

"We are carefully considering our choices. Do we want to pursue industrial, environmental, or biomedical applications?" said Ghosh. "I've spent fifteen years working on oxygen sensing techniques and I really want to make sure we produce a product that matters in the real world. The science has been around for some time; it is how we develop the technology that will make the difference."

  • Written by Carla Hills, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photographs by Paul Phipps, University Outreach and Engagement