Jason Gibbs, Las Cruces Sun-News
LAS CRUCES - Jeff Pilgrim has a nose for trouble.
And not just your average trouble: life-threatening, 270-miles-above-the-Earth trouble. Since founding
Vista Photonics in 2003, Pilgrim and his company have researched, developed and hope to continue to provide systems that detect
noxious gasses aboard the International Space Station to ensure the safety of astronauts in potentially deadly situations.
"We've given companies the ability to take their ideas and technology from the laboratory to the market place," said Ron Curry, EPA regional administrator. "The innovative technology provides cutting-edge solutions to continuing environmental concerns, and helps create good-paying local jobs."
The contract is part of a national initiative where eight other companies
are developing innovative technologies to protect the environment through EPA's Small Business Innovation Research Program. The
phase II contracts announced today provide the companies $300,000 to further develop and commercialize their products and ideas.
Phase II awards are only available to companies that previously submitted research proposals for their innovative technologies
and were awarded phase I contracts up to $100,000.
EPA is one of 11 federal agencies that participate in the SBIR program, which
was enacted in 1982 to strengthen the role of small businesses in federal research and development, create jobs and promote
U.S. technical innovation. To be eligible to participate in the SBIR program, a company must be an organized, for-profit U.S.
business and have fewer than 500 employees.Ammonia is a poisonous gas. Exposure to its vapors can cause temporary blindness and eye
damage, and irritation of the skin, mouth, throat, respiratory tract and mucous membranes. Prolonged exposure to ammonia
vapor at high concentrations can lead to serious lung damage and even death.
To prevent that end, Pilgrim is calling on his experience
in using lasers to detect harmful gasses that, in event of accident or failed technology, would protect the lives of astronauts.
His company, with an office near New Mexico State University's Arrowhead Center and research labs southeast of Las Cruces,
has focused on detecting the presence of potentially deadly gasses on the ISS as well as working on a new system for monitoring
carbon dioxide in spacesuits when astronauts have to work outside the station. The process, simply described by Pilgrim, is "you've
got some really weird gas and you zap it with a laser, probe the reaction with another laser," he said.
The devices will allow
crew to monitor air quality over a period to ensure safety.
"They need to know if they are dragging ammonia in (an escape vehicle or
another area of the ISS)," Pilgrim said. "Wherever they are going, they need an ammonia sensor."
One has been on ISS for two years
and is still functioning well. There are, however, still hurdles to certify the sensors as "flight critical" which will entail
strict monitoring of the entire supply and production chain as well as backups in place should units fail.
"We are now building
a sensor just dedicated to ammonia," Pilgrim said. "If it performs the way we hope it will, if they (NASA) pick it up to take
into the process for qualifying for flight, we will have several of these devices where the crew has to pass through to get to
spacecraft when doing an abort.
"When they get into an escape spacecraft, they are trying to get the ammonia scrubbed out of the air,"
he added. "The project is going well. If we can prove the prototype in two to three months, then they will need a whole pile
In addition, another NASA project seeks a carbon dioxide sensor for spacesuits, an effort underway since 2009. The existing
monitors are old and beginning to wear, Pilgrim said, and need to be replaced for a new generation of space suits.
has seen work on a laser-based sensor for measuring combustion products - the stuff floating in the air after something ignites
or explodes. Due to the harsh environment in which the device operates, much of that testing was done at the White Sands
"It's an environment the sensor has to operate in that would kill a human in minutes," Pilgrim said. "It's
not a very pleasant thing to be in."
Jason Gibbs may be reached at 575-541-5451 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @fjgwriter.