A team of researchers led by the University of Central Florida (UCF) has developed an infrared laser device capable of detecting any molecule in the air.
With this device, people can look for traces of air pollution, global warming gases and chemical agents, conduct medical breath analyses, and even use the device to look for traces of life on interplanetary missions.
“We can detect molecules in a very sensitive way,” said Konstantin Vodopyanov, UCF professor of optics and photonics and lead author of this research. “We can take the air from the room and we can see not only the usual, like carbon dioxide and water, but we can also see trace gases.”
The full paper is published in the journal Nature Photonics.
The technology allows scientists to detect a mixture of many molecules simultaneously. In the study, Vodopyanov and his team demonstrated the detection of 22 trace molecules in a gas mixture.
This technique is even capable of picking up on the isotopes in the air, which is important for detection of nuclear materials, so it could help protect humans in the event of a chemical or biological military attack.
But Vodopyanov is most immediately interested in his device’s potential in the medical field. He wants to team up with doctors to conduct breath analysis.
“You can diagnose many diseases just by analyzing the breath,” said Vodopyanov.
Think of the breathalizer. It picks up on molecules in one’s breath to detect traces of alcohol. This device could be applied in a similar way.
How it Works
Chemicals are made up of molecules that constantly vibrate in the air, and molecules in the infrared range have specifically strong signatures. With these two concepts in mind, Vodopyanov effectively developed a method to use lasers to pick up on molecules vibrations.
“The frequencies of molecules are very distinct, but they are invariant – here, on a different continent, on a different planet, anywhere,” Vodopyanov said in a statement. “It is universal. Think of it as a molecular fingerprint. So when we use the laser we can detect these fingerprints with great precision.”
This device has enormous potential for benefiting many fields, but first the price must come down.
“We still have much work ahead,” Vodopyanov said in a statement. “We are now working on broadening the range of the laser frequencies that can get the job done. If costs can be reduced and the tech made mobile, the applications could be endless.”
He claims that the creation of a cheap and viable product is all dependent on the demand, citing the green laser pointer as an example.
“Twenty-five years ago the green laser pointer cost $20,000 but now it only costs $5 on the internet,” Vodopyanov said. “So the system can go through the same evolution.”
The research team also includes Andrey Muraviev at UCF’s College of Optics & Photonics, Zachary Loparo from UCF’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and Viktor Smolski of IPG Photonics.