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Star Wars Meets Mosquito Control

BioPhotonics
Aug 2016
JAMES SCHLETT, EDITOR, james.schlett@photonics.com

What does it take to kill a mosquito? How about thousands of them?

Unfortunately, fly swatters do too little harm and chemical sprays do too much. So since 2010, Bellevue, Wash.-based Intellectual Ventures Management LLC has been working on answers to these questions. Their solution: the Photonic Fence, a laser system that optically tracks all flying insects that enter a coverage area and zaps only those identified as threats, namely mosquitoes. However, it was only recently that researchers identified the best combination of wavelength, power, pulse duration, pulse energy and beam diameter to efficiently kill the disease-spreading pests.

A mosquito is shot down with a UV laser.

A mosquito is shot down with a UV laser.

The Photonic Fence is reminiscent of the Reagan-era strategic defense initiative, dubbed “Star Wars.” But instead of using lasers to shoot down ballistic missiles, the Photonic Fence uses a laser to shoot down mosquitoes that enter a protected zone, such as a hospital entrance or hotel courtyard. Initially designed to counter the spread of malaria, particularly in Africa, the technology is now being eyed by various entities in South America to shield regions hit hard by the Zika virus. Coincidentally, just 18 days after the World Health Organization on Feb. 1 declared Zika a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, Intellectual Ventures researchers published their findings from a study on the laser-induced mortality of mosquitoes in Scientific Reports.

Intellectual Ventures Management LLC researchers concluded cost and safety concerns were ‘pushing against the use of higher power lasers’ to kill mosquitoes.
Intellectual Ventures Management LLC researchers concluded cost and safety concerns were ‘pushing against the use of higher power lasers’ to kill mosquitoes.

“Figuring out the optimal set of laser dosing conditions has been the greatest challenge due to the large number of parameters to test. Having done that work, killing 10,000 mosquitoes along the way, we find ourselves uniquely positioned to bring this technology to market,” said Intellectual Ventures Project Manager Arty Makagon.

For the study, researchers conducted dosing tests on anesthetized mosquitoes using lasers with wavelengths ranging from 532 nm to 1,470 nm, along with different mixes of beam diameter, pulse duration, pulse energy and power. They found that, from a practical standpoint, the less laser, the better. For example, a laser with a wavelength of 532 nm managed to almost instantaneously kill mosquitoes when using a power of 8.5 W and pulse duration of 5.7 ms. In contrast, a laser with the same wavelength but a 3-W power and 25-ms pulse also killed the mosquitoes, though they slowly died over a 24-hour period. The researchers deemed the higher and lower power approaches as being, from a functional perspective, “largely equivalent in quickly eliminating the presence of healthy insects.”

The Photonic Fence.

The Photonic Fence.

However, Makagon said, “The absolute lowest power condition does not … necessarily mean ‘best.’ For instance, we are designing the system to be cost-effective, so ‘best’ could mean the lowest-cost option.”

After conducting this study on the anesthetized mosquitoes, Intellectual Ventures researchers tested the lasers on the pests as they were in flight. Makagon said these tests yielded similar results. Intellectual Ventures is planning to first deploy the technology to the agriculture or hospitality market, scale up production and then introduce it in Africa and beyond.


GLOSSARY
power
With respect to a lens, the reciprocal of its focal length. The term power, as applied to a telescope or microscope, often is used as an abbreviation for magnifying power.
pulse duration
The lifetime of a laser pulse, generally defined as the time interval between the halfpower points on the leading and trailing edges of the pulse.
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