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SRI International's St. Petersburg lab wins military chemical detection grant

SRI International, which has offices near Albert Whitted Airport in St. Petersburg, has won a multi-year, $11.6 million contract to develop advanced chemical sensors to detect chemical threats in complex urban environments. (Google street view photo)
Published Jul. 3

ST. PETERSBURG — SRI International has won a multi-year, $11.6 million contract to develop advanced sensors to help detect traces of explosives or chemical weapons in urban environments.

The money is coming from the military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, often just known as DARPA. Over the past 60 years, the agency has supported research into breakthrough technologies that contributed to the development of the Internet, automated voice recognition and language translation, and Global Positioning Systems small enough to fit into consumer devices.

SRI International will undertake the research at its St. Petersburg lab, which has a staff of about 20. The system will be designed to be mounted on vehicles that can move through a city in search of trace amounts of chemicals used to make bombs and chemical weapons.

The system is expected to combine SRI's micro mass spectrometer technology and the "eye-safe" laser technology of a subcontractor, Block MEMS, based in Massachusetts, to generate chemical maps in three-dimensional urban settings. And that, an SRI researcher said in an announcement of the grant, should "surpass the sensing capabilities currently possible with a single sensing approach."

"This high-sensitivity, high-endurance detection capability will demonstrate scalability, longevity and cost-effectiveness," said Ashish Chaudhary, a St. Petersburg-based SRI senior program manager and principal investigator of the new system, called Localization and Characterization of Chemical Anomalies in Urban Settings, or LOCCUS.

"SRI is committed to developing high-impact solutions to critical problems related to national security," SRI's Advanced Technology and Systems Division president Scott Seaton said in a statement. "This program is at the heart of our dedication to continue those strides."

Based in Menlo Park, Calif., SRI is a nonprofit scientific research institute that began as the research arm of Stanford University. In 2006 state and local officials offered $19.6 million in incentives to persuade SRI to open a lab near Albert Whitted Airport that could leverage marine research being done at nearby state and federal facilities. Its offices opened on Eighth Avenue SE in 2009. SRI initially agreed to employ 100 people by 2012 with jobs that paid average salaries of $55,000 to $63,000. But expectations changed amid a slow recovery from the recession. By 2015, SRI's St. Petersburg lab had a local staff of about 50.

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This latest grant won't be the first time it has worked on a project that went looking for chemical evidence of big trouble. In 2010, SRI scientists said they took readings on the levels of methane, an especially potent greenhouse gas, in the Gulf of Mexico two years before the Deepwater Horizon explosion and less than 10 miles from the oil rig. After the drilling platform exploded and gushed oil for 80 days, SRI researchers returned to the same area and found levels of methane 100 times higher than normal.

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Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

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