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Technology: Sensing in the 21st Century

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2009
Eric Takeuchi, Kyle Thomas and Timothy Day, Daylight Solutions Inc., etakeuchi@daylightsolutions.com

As we move into the 21st century, environmental monitoring is becoming a common topic of discussion. At home and abroad, the global community has acknowledged the integral nature of our environment and the need to better understand its interconnectedness. Discussions of how to define and observe the status and trends of our environment have moved from universities and laboratories to the center of our political agendas and to the front pages of our newspapers.

Answering the question of how to observe is being driven in part by the extraordinary progress in photonic sensor technologies. For example, battery-operated wearable sensors based upon innovations in external cavity quantum cascade laser (“ECqcL”) technology are now possible. Although these sensors use “fingerprint” identification for multispecies analysis, their advantages are not limited to those in environmental monitoring. ECqcL-based portable sensors also can be used in industrial worker safety applications for monitoring exposure to toxic chemicals and are being leveraged into medical diagnostics applications such as breath analysis and noninvasive glucose detection.

Using lasers to more effectively interrogate samples provides significant benefits, but it is only one component of this environmental challenge. Thinking “outside the beam” and combining photonic sensors with complementary technologies such as wireless communications and data storage, mining and analysis are beginning to generate profound results. It has become apparent that an integral approach will be the key to evolving toward next-generation systems.

In the future, wireless sensor networks will comprise nodes that are integrated into everyday objects such as PCs, cell phones, automobiles and home smoke detectors. The aggregated data will be analyzed using regression techniques and neural networks, all in real time. Highly predictive results about the environment may be used to direct traffic patterns (shipping, automotive), to plan new urban development projects and/or to predict regional air quality. These sensor networks also will be integrated into “smart buildings,” where they should play a significant role in more efficient operation, future chemical/biological agent detection, and monitoring and protecting office buildings, housing complexes, sports venues and mass transit stations.

Photonics and the accelerated evolution of ECqcL technologies will be critical components of approaches to addressing the integral environmental challenges of tomorrow.


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