A research team at Michigan State University has developed a laser that could help detect roadside bombs.
The laser, which has an output that is similar to a simple laser pointer used in presentations, can be used to scan large areas and detect improvised explosive devices (IEDs), according to its developers.
The detection of IEDs — which account for around 60 percent of coalition soldiers' deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq — is difficult because the environment introduces a large number of chemical compounds that mask the select few molecules that one is trying to detect, said Marcos Dantus, chemistry professor at Michigan State University and founder of BioPhotonic Solutions.
"Having molecular structure sensitivity is critical for identifying explosives and avoiding unnecessary evacuation of buildings and closing roads due to false alarms," Dantus said.
Since IEDs can be found in populated areas, the methods used to detect these weapons must be nondestructive and distinguishable from various similar compounds that can be found in urban environments. However, the new laser can make these distinctions even for quantities as small as a fraction of one-billionth of a gram.
Dantus' team has developed a laser device that combines short pulses that kick the molecules and make them vibrate, as well as long pulses that are used to "listen" and identify the different "chords." The chords include different vibrational frequencies that uniquely identify every molecule, much like a fingerprint. The high-sensitivity laser can work in tandem with cameras and allows users to scan questionable areas from a safe distance.
"The laser and the method we've developed were originally intended for microscopes, but we were able to adapt and broaden its use to demonstrate its effectiveness for standoff detection of explosives," Dantus said.
The research is funded in part by the Department of Homeland Security.