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SPARKS, Nev. (KOLO) -- The big breakthrough happened at the Historic Palmer Engineering Building at the University of Nevada.

NevadaNano co-founder Jesee Adams talking about the discovery he made inside the Palmer Engineering Building

"I saw on the white board, 'Oh my gosh. This is going to work. You're going to be able to see multiple sensors with one tiny circuit and make low cost low power distributed gas sensing possible,'" said NevadaNano Co-Founder, Jesse Adam as he recalled what he said as a 28-year-old man late one night sometime in the winter or spring months of the 2002/2003 school year.

This one moment is now changing explosives and gas detection as we know it across the world.    

Jesse is a Douglas High School and University of Nevada graduate. He used his education to make this discovery including his undergraduate work at the University of Nevada in Reno and his graduate work at Stanford University where he worked with atomic force microscopes. They are strong enough to allow the human eye to see the electron cloud of atoms.   

He was an assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering at UNR when he wrote a blueprint for what would become the most accurate microscopic gas sensor able to detect hazardous materials. "We got published in Nature, which got us world wide attention. I remember taking the garbage out in Reno and I was on a talk show radio in South Africa. This is talk show 5577."

His discovery also graced the pages of a USA Today article and National Geographic, Jesse said.  

Jesse co-founded NevadaNano in March of 2004 with the help of the University of Nevada and some federal grants. The local company is creating new products, which is changing the way work and live.

One example of how his technology can improve lives starts with the explosion inside the University of Nevada's Argenta Hall July 5, 2019. It was caused by an earlier smaller explosion during a boiler repair. It severed a 3 inch natural gas line, which filled Argenta Hall's lower floors and basement with 6,000 cubic feet of natural gas.

A maintenance worker pulled a fire alarm. It essentially saved everyone in the building because it gave them time to get out before the major explosion. 

"If he didn't have the sense to pull the fire alarm he could have some type of detection device for that specific gas to basically work to get people out of the building," said Senior Director for Business Development at NevadaNano, Bob Christensen.

Another example of what the NevadaNano's molecular property spectrometer can do centers around the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The April 20, 2010 event killed 11 workers, covered 1,300 miles of the Gulf Coast in oil, and killed an estimated 800,000 birds.  
"The alarms were going off and the sensors were not reliable enough that the employees trusted the sensors were accurate so this situation created what they call a false positive or nuisance alarm. It became so much of a nuisance that the employees after awhile either ignored and or turned off the alarm," Bob said. "We designed our system so that nuisance alarms are very very very rare so we have a very tight specification of when to alarm," he continued. 

"We feel like we have a very disruptive technology to a very important industry in terms of providing worker safety. It's replacing decades old technology," said Bob.

There are three arms of NevadaNano. 

One focuses on home air conditioning units. They will be required to use a more environmentally friendly coolant by the year 2023.

"The problem with that is the more global warming friendly they are the more explosive they are," Bob said.

Bob says units will need NevadNano's refrigerant gas sensors to make sure there are no leaks.

"We're excited. It's a big market for us. We've got a lot of interests from a lot of air conditioning manufacturers," said Bob. "Our design is the perfect fit for that in terms of being able to survive a very long time in a very harsh environment."

There is also an indoor air quality device to detect and mitigate dangerous gas levels. One example of a gas it would monitor is formaldehyde. "Formaldehyde is a carcinogen, which is a leading cause of cancer," said NevadaNano Senior Engineer, Rachael Bowe.     
It kicks on an air purification system when it detects levels deemed too high for people living in a home.  
The second area of emphasis for NevadaNano is gas detection. The company sells a sensor able to detect twelve different kinds of gases.  

"Not only the most accurate, but also it can operate in a very broad environmental range so basically it can operate in any type of condition on this planet," Bob says the sensors can work in weather as cold as 40 degrees Fahrenheit to as hot as 167 degrees Fahrenheit.

NevadaNano's third main focus is to design products able to find unintended gas leaks at oil and gas facilities. This includes well heads, distribution centers, pipe lines, and processing plants.

"That would be an array of sensors on a site all over the place. That's right around the circle around the well heads. So you have to figure out where it's actually coming from," said Bob.

Quick detection leading to a quick solution before a gas leak can grow to a dangerous level for workers and the environment.

NevadaNano engineers have been granted 24 patents so far.   

Fifteen engineers work at the company. Ten are local University of Nevada graduates. 

Copyright KOLO-TV 2019