Applications engineering projects are efforts to solve significant public sector or industrial problems through redesign or reengineering of existing technology. They originate in various ways. Some stem from requests for assistance from other government agencies; others are generated by NASA technologists who perceive possible solutions to problems by adapting NASA technology to the need. NASA also employs an applications team composed of scientists and engineers representing different areas of expertise, who identify problems, submit them to NASA centers for review, then assist the centers in adapting solutions.
An example of an ongoing applications engineering project is an effort at Langley Research Center to develop a Fetal Heart Rate Monitor for monitoring problem pregnancies.
Some 20 percent of the three million annual pregnancies in the U.S. require periodic non-stress evaluations that rely on fetal heart rate changes as a barometer of the baby's health. The heart beat changes in response to influences such as drug and alcohol abuse, smoking, anemia, high blood pressure, diabetes or infection.
Conceived by Donald A. Baker, M.D., of Spokane, Washington and developed by Dr. Allan J. Zuckerwar, a research scientist at Langley, the portable Fetal Heart Rate Monitor is an acoustically-based passive instrument that permits a high-risk patient to perform the non-stress test at home on a daily basis (the acoustic approach, in contrast to the usual ultrasound technique, does not involve creation and injection of energy into the patient and her fetus).
The monitor (below) is a cummerbund-type sash into which is embedded seven piezoelectric polymer film pressure sensors that, together with signal processing, enable separation of fetal heart sounds from the mother's. The patient dons the sash, activates the associated desktop computer and, upon completion of the 20-minute test, awaits instructions displayed on the screen. The system can be available on a rental basis and the cost of each test is expected to be substantially less than the current in-hospital or in-clinic test.
Clinical testing is in progress at Eastern Virginia Medical School, Norfolk, Virginia and Tarzana (California) Regional Medical Center. An exclusive license has been offered to Veatronics, Charlotte, North Carolina to manufacture and market the system. Commercialization forecasts project a sales potential of $100 million a year in the U.S. alone.
Another example is Langley's development of an Oxidation Catalyst that can convert toxic carbon monoxide and formaldehyde fumes into harmless carbon dioxide and oxygen. The catalyst can be used in a broad range of applications, notably in air purification systems for homes and office buildings.
A team led by Dr. Billy Upchurch and David R. Schryer, both Langley chemists, developed the catalyst for use in a space-based laser that uses carbon dioxide to help generate its beam. In the process, some carbon dioxide molecules are decomposed into carbon monoxide and oxygen. Without replenishment, the loss of carbon dioxide would eventually cause failure of the laser. Therefore, NASA sought a way to regenerate the carbon dioxide by catalytically recombining the carbon monoxide and oxygen, a way of providing a long term supply of carbon dioxide for a laser aboard an environmental satellite that would have to operate for at least five years.
Upchurch and Schryer spent parts of 10 years looking for a way to create carbon dioxide by oxidizing another substance, such as carbon monoxide. In 1992 they found the proper catalyst, a balanced combination of tin alloy and platinum plus a "promoter" to enhance the catalytic activity, and successfully demonstrated the catalyst in a laser system. They continued development, aiming at practical Earth applications, and in 1995 demonstrated a home-use catalyst shown above (the white disc is an uncoated, commercially available ceramic catalyst support, the black disc is the Oxidation Catalyst with the tin/platinum material added).
The catalyst looks like a filter but it is not; it does not simply absorb harmful gases, it oxidizes them, and it permits breathable gases to pass through unchanged. Rochester (New York) Gas and Electric is developing the catalyst in a home air circulation system for removing carbon monoxide and formaldehyde (used in furniture and carpet manufacture) from indoor air; at right above, Upchurch is explaining that application. Other applications include gas masks, submarine ventilation systems, and catalytic converters for cold-start emission control of automotive exhausts. The basic technique can be modified to use other catalytic materials and oxidize other gases for a wider range of applications.