NRI to hunt for WMDs
Dr Kumar Patel has invented an instrument which can sniff out WMDs 'without fail'. The invention has won a multimillion-dollar contract with US Govt, reports Gurmukh Singh.
Patels. Well, you generally associate them with motels in this country where they control 40 per cent of this industry.
A Patel being a top-notch scientist? Well, that's a rare case.
One such rarity is Dr Kumar Patel who in 1993 was the first Indian to become vice chancellor at the University of California at Los Angeles. He is renowned for pioneering carbon dioxide laser technology which is used in drilling, cutting and welding all over the world.
Patel is making news again in this season of Iraq war and weapons mass destruction (WMDs).
Everyone knows that before the war, US intelligence said Iraq had WMDs. Later the military found none.
What went wrong? Intelligence reports? Or detection instruments with the military?
If the latter is the case, Patel has found the answer.
He has invented an instrument which can sniff out WMDs and toxic gases ``without fail.''
This has won him a multimillion-dollar contract with the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for the supply of this instrument.
And he has used the carbon dioxide laser technology at his Santa Monica-based Pranalytica Inc, which he set up after quitting as VC of UCLA in 2000, first to develop highly sensitive 'breathlysers' and now this instrument.
"The instrument that detects WMDs is a sort of progression of the breathlysers that we have developed,'' he says.
The special breathlysers developed by Patel detect not only alcohol but also ammonia gas in your breath.
"Ammonia is unusually high in kidney and liver patients. By putting this breathlyser to the mouth, you can tell whether that person is suffering from kidney or liver ailments. Labs today use it while performing dialysis to check whether the ammonia level in the patient has come down to the required level. In its improved form called Nephrolux, this breathlyser is used for checking ammonia levels in silicon chip labs where high ammonia levels can harm the chip. Also it is used to check ammonia levels in the atmosphere for agriculture purposes and in cattle sheds,'' he says.
Patel has fine-tuned the instrument further to develop it into a WMD-detection instrument.
Explains Patel, "Basically, WMDs are chemicals. And like every chemical, they also emit certain frequency. By fine-tuning the frequency of our instrument to that of the WMDs, you can detect their presence anywhere -- be it a military field, a subway, a building or a stadium," he says.
What is his take on the Iraqi WMDs?
"It could be the fault of instruments -- giving false reports about their presence during intelligence gathering or not being able to detect them during military operations under way now," he says.
"The instrument being used today is not sensitive enough. They can be fooled into giving false alarms by many interfering gases that are present in both urban and military environments. What is needed is highly sensitive instrumentation that cannot be tricked into giving false reports by these interfering gases. Our instrument is free from this flaw. It will do a pro-active, neat job,'' he says.
"Forget about its military use, and look at its potential for civilians. Suppose there are 80,000 people in a football stadium. Suddenly someone calls to say that there is a chemical weapon set to go off. Imagine the panic and deaths it will cause. Someone may call to say that this and that building in Wall Street will blow up. See the kind of economic disruption it will cause. That's what happened in Mumbai in 1993. My instrument cannot be fooled. It will do a pro-active, neat job. Nothing can escape its sensors. The events of 9/11 have highlighted the need to protect our ourselves from terrorist attacks,'' Patel says.
John Carrano of the US Defence Advanced Research Project Agency said after signing the contract with Patel, "I am excited that the activity with (Patel's) Pranalytica will provide us with the opportunity to discover unique sensor technologies for meeting the very challenging needs of our armed forces for a sensitive sensor that can be used in the field reliably by soldiers and other personnel. Development of sensor technologies.... will not only provide the needed sensors for military use, but may also be useful in homeland security.''
Known in defence and educational circles in Washington, Patel served AT & T Bell Labs for 32 years before he became VC at UCLA in 1993. At Bell, he was director of the Physical Science Lab as well as the Electronics Research Lab. Later he rose to become executive director for research before leaving for UCLA.
At UCLA, his tenure was marked by a 50 per cent hike in research funding -- from $240 million to $480 million.
In 1975, he served as president of the American Physical Society which has 40,000 members and the Simga X1 which has 80,000 members.
Curiously enough, he headed the study called Science and Technology of Directed-Energy Weapons, which killed Reagan's Star Wars it found that the science and technology for this mission was not available yet.
Patel heads the Indo-US Joint Science Scientific Committee on Microelectronics and travels twice to India each year "to do his bit for his motherland."