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Professors’ venture wins MassChallenge award

Swastik Kar, associate professor in the Department of Physics and Yung Joon Jung, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, were recently awarded $50,000 through the MassChallenge accelerator, and an additional grant through the CASIS-Boeing Prize for Technology in Space. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University
Swastik Kar, associate professor in the Department of Physics and Yung Joon Jung, professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, were recently awarded $50,000 through the MassChallenge accelerator, and an additional grant through the CASIS-Boeing Prize for Technology in Space. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Ask any academic researcher about their long-term goals and, among them, you’ll likely hear some variation of the phrase “societal impact.” That’s precisely the motivation behind Guardion, a venture developed by two Northeastern faculty members: Swastik Kar, professor of physics, and Yung Joon Jung, professor of mechanical and industrial engineering.

Guardion was recently awarded $50,000 through the MassChallenge accelerator, as well as an additional grant through the CASIS-Boeing Prize for Technology in Space. The venture is based on technology Kar and Jung have perfected over a five-year collaboration: a radiation sensor that’s at least an order of magnitude more sensitive than currently available options. It’s also smaller and less expensive to build.

Jung and Kar’s vision is to deploy a network of these sensors in cities where they act as guards, sensing radiation-generated ions—hence the name, Guardion.

“There is a very strong need for this, as outlined by the Department of Homeland Security,” Kar said. The sensors could be placed strategically all around a city to preventatively detect the early presence of specific radiation from nuclear or radiological terrorism. They may also be given to first responders who are responsible for isolating an effected area.

“First responders literally walk toward the source of some event with manually-held radiation sensors, trying to figure out how safe it is and how close you can get until you’re overexposed,” Kar said. This is dangerous, slow, and prone to errors. Having a network of sensitive detectors would allow them to instantaneously and remotely map the perimeter. And that intel could save lives.

“Think Fukushima,” Kar said. “Think how much safer people would be if they knew the plume from a power plant was going in a certain direction. They could get those people out of the way, rather than blindly trying to create a plan.”

The sensors also have a cosmic application. Guardion was one of three companies to be awarded the CASIS-Boeing Prize for Technology in Space, which collectively totals $500,000. CASIS is the Center for Advancement of Science in Space.

“The CASIS- Boeing funding is a big deal because it would let us make use of the International Space Station for experiments,” Kar said. The value of this is two-fold. First, it will allow for testing of materials in microgravity conditions, which could lead to the growth of better samples here on Earth. Sending the sensors into space also lays the groundwork for a potential future collaboration with NASA.

“Space is chock full of radiation,” Kar said. “We want to better understand what different types are out there so astronauts know what to expect. And we want to understand what’s very far away and be able to measure and image that.”

Most radiation sensors are large, heavy, and power-hungry. They require some external amplification component in order to pick up on very specific and faint sources. Jung and Kar have eliminated that need by manipulating the built-in physics properties of the nanomaterials their sensors are made of. The result is a more compact and sensitive detector that could be deployed widely.

“Our real-time monitoring will reduce the days of inspection to literally seconds and minutes,” Kar said.

The research that bred this technology was funded by a National Science Foundation grant. Subsequently, Kar and Jung were awarded two more NSF grants to support their progress toward commercial viability and product development.

“Our dream is to look at the success of our technology in commercialization,” Jung said. But they don’t plan to quit their day jobs.

“We are professors. We love being professors of research and teaching,” Kar said. Guardion will be run by Daniel Esposito, a Northeastern alumnus who graduated in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.

“We will stay in advisory roles for the development of the science,” Kar said. “That’s what we know best.”