Timothy Swager can smell success.
The chemist, who developed a technology that can sniff out bombs, was named on Monday as the winner of the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for best U.S. inventor.
Backers of the prize, named after inventor and award program founder Jerome Lemelson and recently won by the young inventors of a wall-crawling device for firefighters and a prototype of a flying car, modified the rules to specify that the latest winner be a midcareer inventor on the rise.
Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developed a method for detecting chemicals through air sampling. While it can be used to detect early-stage cancer cells and environmental pollutants, it is particularly useful for finding synthetic explosives.
Swager's technology, which uses a polymer train that can be targeted to attract nitroaromatic molecules for specific chemicals used in bombs that are otherwise very hard to trace, is licensed to Nomadics.
The ICx Technologies subsidiary has incorporated the chemical detection method into its Fido Explosives Detector. Since it picks up on the scent of TNT, the air-sampling handheld device can be used as one of the methods for sniffing out land mines and other explosives.
"Fido doesn't have the computational power or the agility of a dog, but it has a similar sensitivity for certain things," Swager said in a statement.
Although man's best friend still has an overall better nose, the Fido can "smell" as well as a dog for some classes of chemicals, Swager said. He added that the device is cheaper, more predictable, easier to control and less intimidating than a canine.
The Lemelson-MIT Prize isn't Swager's first honor for developing the technology behind Fido. In 2005, he was given the Greatest Invention Award by the U.S. Army, which has been using the device in Iraq as a handheld and a mobile-robot attachment to detect land mines. Swager has saved the lives of hundreds of soldiers through his invention, retired Gen. Paul Kern said in a statement.
Swager, who plans to take part May 2 through 5 in the Lemelson-MIT Program's invention-focused EurekaFest, co-sponsored by Boston's Museum of Science, will be joined by Dartmouth College engineering professor Lee Lynd.
Lynd, co-founder of fuel technology company Mascoma, won the program's sustainability prize (worth $100,000) for his work on the conversion of cellulosic biomass into ethanol.