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Mass Spectrometry for Atmospheric Monitoring

The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation is requesting proposals for a grant opportunity for the development of new instrument designs to bring the most advanced mass spectrometry detection capabilities and sensitivity levels into a lightweight, inexpensive, and easily operated system that could be portable or deployed on airborne platforms, in unattended monitoring stations, or operated by citizen scientists, for long-term analysis of the chemical composition of the atmosphere. The intent of this program is to support scientists, with a focus on undergraduates, to become inventors and innovators in this compelling area of research by building tools and instruments. Miniaturizing mass spectrometers has been an active area of research for many years, and it is timely to advance such prototype designs for broader applications for mobile monitoring. If successful, these prototype monitoring systems could have a lasting impact on informing policy decisions on sources of pollution, improving indoor and outdoor air quality, and furthering the democratization of access to clean air around the world.

The Foundation is requesting proposals to build novel mass spectrometer instruments with performance equivalent to current laboratory instruments that could operate on a wide range of ground-based and/or airborne platforms with minimal user expertise. Program teams must be based within a university or non-profit research institution with the ability to engage undergraduate students in research. The program team should include active participation from undergraduate students, with graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and staff members from a mix of disciplines (e.g., chemistry, atmospheric sciences, engineering) as well as the technology transfer, commercialization, and administrative offices, as appropriate for the proposed program and institution’s resources.

The Foundation will provide support of up to $1 million per selected team over a 3-year development and testing program at awarded Institutions, which can be used flexibly to purchase materials for several prototype systems, consumables for testing, full-time support for undergraduate students to participate in the program, part-time support for other personnel, which could include research staff, graduate students and/or postdoctoral fellows, support for industry collaborations, and/or training courses or experiences for participating students. Applicant institutions must demonstrate their commitment for additional funding beyond the $1 million support from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, if necessary, to complete the objectives of the program described below. The Foundation does not provide support for overhead or indirect costs. Additional information on the technical proposal, allowable program costs, budget format, and institutional support requirements can be found in the instructions in the online application portal.

Proposals should be centered around addressing the performance needs for a specific use case, for example, but not limited to, on an airborne sampling platform, or in a ground-based sensor suite, or in a citizen scientist field sampling kit. Table 1 in the Full Text of the Request for Proposals provides several performance parameters for mass spectrometry systems, with threshold and objective metrics that span a range of use cases. Proposals should justify the desired performance for each parameter depending on the specific selected use case. The proposal should include an initial design concept that would meet the desired form factor and performance of the final instrument, including the aerosol inlet and detection system with the required power and consumables, and a cost analysis of production costs of the system compared to similar commercially available laboratory equipment. Proposals should also include a program plan for a 3-year effort to iterate on the design concept through building prototypes, testing, and refining the designs. At the end of the program, the Foundation will provide an opportunity for the systems to be tested against simulated real-world challenges in a laboratory environment.

One faculty member or senior research scientist should be identified as the Program Lead. The inclusion of junior scientists is a high priority for the Foundation, and proposals must include a program team plan that clearly identifies how undergraduates will be incorporated in the development process in a meaningful way, as well as detail the other team member roles and responsibilities required for the project, such as graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, other faculty, and staff scientists to maintain continuity in the engineering program over the three-year effort. Incorporation of industrial partners at all program stages is encouraged, and will be required in later stages of the program, but is not required at the proposal stage. A training plan shall also be developed that specifically addresses how the undergraduate students participating in the program will benefit from new training opportunities, either within or beyond the individual institution.

The Foundation will consider proposals from individual institutions or from consortia of institutions whose combined resources will address the program requirements. For any consortium application, there must be a “Lead Institution”, defined as the institute that will accept the entire grant award on behalf of the consortium. The Lead Institution submitting the proposal must be a nonprofit US university or research institution, including Primarily Undergraduate Institutions.

Program teams must be based within a university or non-profit research institution with the ability to engage undergraduate students in research.

Q: Are Primarily Undergraduate Institutions eligible to apply?

A: Yes! As long as the PUI engages undergraduates in research opportunities.

Q: Can a University submit more than one proposal?

A: Yes, we will accept more than one proposal from an Institution, as long as they are from different Lead PIs and teams. The Institution must also commit to support both proposals, if both are selected for funding.

Q: Table 1 in the RFP lists target compounds as benzene, toluene, propene, butene (total), acetonitrile, hexanes (total), octanes (total), isoprene, monoterpenes (total). Are all of these considered threshold, i.e. a developed system would need to quantify all of them? Or is it acceptable to measure a subset of them?

A: A system can measure a subset of the compounds, based on their relevance to the use case you are proposing.

Q: Would we accept proposals that are not based on traditional mass spectroscopy but still provide atmospheric monitoring and meet the specified performance metrics?

A: Proposals must include development of a mass spectroscopy instrument. We do recognize that other technologies for atmospheric monitoring exist, and those technologies may be included within an overall system architecture concept to meet the detection requirements of a use case, if appropriate. The inclusion of additional sensing modalities is not a requirement of the program and is not required for a favorable review of an application.

Q: The instructions state that " Incorporation of industrial partners at all program stages is encouraged, and will be required in later stages of the program." Are there any additional details or requirements for incorporation of industrial partners?

A: We encourage the research teams to engage with the technology transfer or commercialization office at your institution to develop a strategy and plan for the ultimate utilization of any new technology advancements in the broader community. At the proposal stage, this plan can be very general, but in the Year 2 and Year 3 reports, we will require technology transfer plans as part of our annual reporting that should be developed in coordination with your institution's offices and with an industrial partner, as applicable. We may also include interested company representatives at the end of program testing event, with appropriate notification and disclosure to all participants.