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  • Laser Technique Detects Anthrax in Real Time
Apr 2007
COLLEGE STATION, Texas, April 13, 2007 -- A laser technique has been developed that can instantly identify deadly anthrax spores.

"Our report shows how to use lasers to detect anthrax in real time as opposed to the cumbersome and wieldy way it is done now," said Marlan Scully, Distinguished Professor of Physics at Texas A&M University and holder of a joint faculty appointment at Princeton University’s Applied Physics and Materials Science Group. "We do our experiments ‘on the fly’, so we can get a signature within a tiny fraction of a second. Our procedure can work for monitoring anthrax in mail, but it can also scan the whole atmosphere. And there are a lot of other potential applications -- monitoring glucose in the blood, for example."

The technique was developed by Scully and a group of 11 other researchers, including Texas A&M physicists Dmitry Pestov, Gombojav O. Ariunbold, Xi Wang, Miaochan Zhi, Alexei V. Sokolov, and Vladimir A. Sautenkov, Princeton physicists Arthur Dogariu and Yu Huang, and joint Texas A&M and Princeton scientists Robert K. Murawski and Yuri V. Rostovtsev. The group co-authored an article appearing today in the journal Science.

The new technique is based on coherent anti-Stokes Raman scattering (CARS), a phenomenon that measures the light scattering that occurs when a molecule is bombarded by light energy (photons). Molecules are composed of two or more atoms, and the subatomic particles which make up these atoms are in constant motion, producing vibration patterns unique to each substance. When a molecule is hit by an appropriate sequence of laser pulses, it gives off light in a specific ‘fingerprint’ pattern. If three laser pulses are used, the resultant emitted light yields a coherent signature at a particular frequency.

"Unfortunately, however, when anthrax molecules are subjected to such study, their CARS signature can be obscured by background signals from other molecules present in the medium containing the anthrax spores," Scully said. Scientists have tried a variety of methods to counteract or neutralize these background vibrations, with only limited success, he said.

But the Texas A&M-Princeton group has developed new techniques for minimizing the background "noise" from extraneous molecules and maximizing the coherent molecular oscillations crucial to detecting endospores of Bacillus anthracis (anthrax). They did this by using a succession of femtosecond pulses (one femtosecond is one billionth of one millionth of a second) so that the first two laser pulses in the CARS process prepare a coherent molecular vibration, then time-delaying the third laser pulse, which is scattered off the molecular oscillation, resulting in the anti-Stokes fingerprint. This technique in effect cancels the noise from vibrations of non-anthrax molecules.

"The combination of shared preparation pulses and an ultrashort time-delayed probe pulse maximized the signal and lessens the background contribution," Scully said. They call this approach femtosecond adaptive spectroscopic techniques via CARS (FAST-CARS).

The research reported in Science represents further refinement of the FAST-CARS method, using ultrashort broadband pulses for the first two laser bursts and a longer, tailored narrowband pulse for the third laser probe.

"This combination of broadband preparation and time-delayed narrowband probing yields a very sensitive and robust technique that allows us to identify bacterial endospores, such as anthrax, in real time," Scully said. "We refer to this technique as hybrid CARS for short."

Using the new method, Scully and his colleagues used the dipicolinic acid (DPA) marker molecule to identify anthrax spores.

"DPA, in the form of its salt, calcium DPA, accounts for 10 to 17 percent of the bacterial spore dry weight," he said. "In our research, we worked with sodium DPA, which is similar to the calcium salt, but easier to work with."

The significance of this project has been recognized by other researchers. "This paper is a remarkable achievement in that it makes very clever use of modern techniques for coherent control to detect molecular signals with high sensitivity. Many important practical applications can be foreseen for this technology," said Harvard professor of physics Mikhail Lukin.

"Scully has convinced a number of very skeptical scientists -- including some of our own at Princeton -- that his theory and experimental approach are correct and has convinced DARPA to provide several millions in funding to do experiments," said Szymon Suckewer, Princeton professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

"This has been a very challenging problem," Scully said. "So many people have said this could not work. People have left the program because they were afraid their careers would be scuttled. But we have succeeded beyond our hopes and are now ready to take it to the next level."

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The unwanted and unpredictable fluctuations that distort a received signal and hence tend to obscure the desired message. Noise disturbances, which may be generated in the devices of a communications system or which may enter the system from the outside, limit the range of the system and place requirements on the signal power necessary to ensure good reception.
A quantum of electromagnetic energy of a single mode; i.e., a single wavelength, direction and polarization. As a unit of energy, each photon equals hn, h being Planck's constant and n, the frequency of the propagating electromagnetic wave. The momentum of the photon in the direction of propagation is hn/c, c being the speed of light.
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