While many NC State students spent the summer beefing up their resumes, getting ahead in classes or relaxing, Kevin Taff was busy finding ways to protect the United States from a biochemical attack.

During an internship at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee, Taff worked to improve a proposed national network of sensors to detect chemical, biological, or radiation threats—cutting the response time ofemergency personnel and saving lives. The internship was part of a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) scholarship he earned last year, which also pays a monthly stipend and annual tuition for Taff, an accelerated master’s degree student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“This has really helped me extend my reach,” says Taff, one of 50 DHS scholars nationwide. “I’m much more interested in applying my knowledge to help others than just working for a company to help make a profit.”

As part of the team of scientists at ORNL working on the SensorNet project, he searched for ways to improve the capabilities of the sensors and their relay of information to a central computer for analysis and response. The sensors currentlymonitor a limited area, making it costly to deploy and coordinate a system for even a large building, and they need to be connected wirelessly so they can continue operating if normal communications systems are disrupted.

SensorNet is being tested near Oak Ridge and in Washington, D.C. Future plans call for the sensors to be deployed in locations considered at high risk for attack, as well as at places like highway weigh stations to detect the possible movement of a “dirty bomb.”

David Hill, an ORNL information technology manager, says Taff was able to demonstrate ways to transmit encrypted data from a sensor to the central computer, despite the mountainous terrain of eastern Tennessee interfering with the wireless signal. “I really needed the manpower on the project more than high-end technology, but he was able to provide us with both,” Hill says.

Taff hopes to bring what he has learned back to his studies at NC State, where he plans to do more research on antenna design and wireless networks. “It was great to be involved in a project that is so important to our future,” he says.Until those returns are in the bank, University officials don't plan on a second venture fund to support research now in the lab. Treasurer Kathryn Hart says the endowment fund and foundations affiliated with NC State's various colleges that put up the $10 million may allocate more money to another University venture fund when they see good returns on the first fund. "Enthusiasm for the idea remains strong," Hart says, "but it's too early to know if the returns will meet the expectations."

For more information, please visit
computing.ornl.gov/cse_home/sensornet/