There is an urgent need for new chemical sensors for defense and security applications. In particular, sensors are required that can provide higher sensitivity and faster response in the field than existing baseline technologies. We have been developing a new solid-state chemical sensor technology based on microscale polymer composite fiber arrays. The fibers consist of an insulating polymer doped with conducting particles and are electrospun directly onto the surface of an interdigitated microelectrode. The concentration of the conducting particles within the fiber is controlled and is near the percolation threshold. Thus, the electrical resistance of the polymer fiber composite is very sensitive to volumetric changes produced in the polymer by vapor absorption. Preliminary results are presented on the fabrication and testing of the new microsensor. The objective is to take advantage of the very high surface to volume ratio, low thermal mass and linear geometry of the composite fibers to produce sensors exhibiting an extremely high vapor sensitivity and rapid response. The simplicity and low cost of a resistance-based chemical microsensor makes this sensing approach an attractive alternative to devices requiring RF electronics or time-of-flight analysis. Potential applications of this technology include battlespace awareness, homeland security, environmental surveillance, medical diagnostics and food process monitoring.
Nanoscale polymeric coatings are used in a variety of sensor systems. The influence of polymer coating morphology on sensor response was investigated and it was determined that coating morphology plays a particularly important role in transducers based on optical or acoustic resonance such as surface acoustic wave (SAW) or surface plasmon resonance (SPR) devices. Nanoscale polymeric coatings were deposited onto a number of miniature devices using a "solvent-free" deposition technique known as Rapid Expansion of Supercritical Solutions (RESS). In RESS, the supercritical solvent goes into the vapor phase upon fast depressurization and separates from the polymer. Therefore, dry polymer particles are deposited from the gas phase. The average diameter of RESS precipitates is about two orders of magnitude smaller than the minimum droplet size achievable by the air-brush method. For rubbery polymers, such as PIB and PDMS, the nanoscale solute droplets produced by RESS agglomerate on the surface forming a highly-uniform continuous nanoscale film. For glassy and crstalline polymers, the RESS droplets produce uniform particulate coatings exhibiting high surface-to-volume ratio. The coating morphology can be changed by controlling the RESS processing conditions.