Researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington are developing ultra-sensitive lasers that are small enough for military personnel to carry in order to detect chemical and biological agents used for weapons. The project is led by Dr. Weidong Zhou, an electrical engineer who specializes in nanophotonics, the use of light in nanoscale projects.
The work is funded with a $600,000 federal grant that is part of a larger DARPA project to make ultraviolet laser detection more available in the field. Current systems that use light to detect biological or chemical weapons are so large that they often require trucks for transportation. DARPA’s Laser UV Sources for Tactical Efficient Raman (LUSTER) program aims to create a new class of ultraviolet lasers that are more than 300 times smaller, ten times more efficient, and significantly less expensive than current technology.
The lasers that Zhou is developing could be used in current detection systems to save size, weight, and power, or the technology could be used to create new systems that are smaller and more sensitive. “It’s like shining a light to find one of these chemical or biological agents. It’s like finding these agents’ fingerprints,” Zhou said. “The Army needs something that’s portable.” Although the primary purpose is detecting chemical and biological agents, the new class of lasers could also be used in broader applications, such as medical diagnostics, advanced manufacturing, secure communications, environmental monitoring, or compact atomic clocks.