Sniffing out bombs and pollutants from a distance
PRINCETON, N.J. – A breakthrough in laser sensing technology
could allow soldiers to detect hidden explosives from a distance and scientists
to better measure airborne environmental pollutants and greenhouse gases.
The new laser sensing technology developed by Princeton University
engineers allows scientists to send laser pulses out and receive another pulse back
from the air itself. The returning beam of the “air laser” interacts
with molecules in the air, carrying back their fingerprints, the scientists said.
The system works by remotely generating a pulse of laser light
at the air volume to be sampled, which then shines back at the detector instrument.
The returning beam of light is not just a reflection or scattering of the outgoing
beam, but an entirely new laser beam generated from oxygen atoms whose electrons
were excited to high energy levels.
The researchers said that their method sends back a beam “thousands
of times” stronger than can be obtained by existing methods such as lidar,
which reflects lasers off objects beyond the area of interest. They think this will
allow much lower trace levels of airborne substances to be picked up.
A new laser
sensing technology could someday be made small enough to sit on a tank and scan
the road ahead for bombs.
The air laser has been demonstrated in the lab over distances
of only about a foot and a half, but the team plans to increase the distance over
which the beam can travel by focusing the beam farther away. They are considering
building a scanner that could be mounted on a tank to scan roadways for bombs or
to detect faint plumes of explosives emitted from buried mines.
Development of other remote approaches that involve a combination
of lasers and radar is in the works in hopes of detecting contaminants that are
below a few parts per billion of the air molecules. The work was published in Science,
Vol. 331, No. 6016, pp. 442-445 (2011).
- 1. A device designed to convert the energy of incident radiation into another form for the determination of the presence of the radiation. The device may function by electrical, photographic or visual means. 2. A device that provides an electric output that is a useful measure of the radiation that is incident on the device.
- An acronym of light detection and ranging, describing systems that use a light beam in place of conventional microwave beams for atmospheric monitoring, tracking and detection functions. Ladar, an acronym of laser detection and ranging, uses laser light for detection of speed, altitude, direction and range; it is often called laser radar.
- 1. A device used to trace out an object and build up an image. One of the most common of these types is video scanning. The scanning takes place inside the television tube as electrons, guided by electron optics, sweep linearly across a tube face coated on the inside with a phosphorescent material. A scanner can convert a paper drawing or photograph into pixels on a display screen. Scanners are also used to relay information in optical data processing. 2. A device that automatically measures or...
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