A Temple University expert in laser technology has turned his skills to the field of homeland defense.
Robert Levis heads the University’s Center for Advanced Photonics Research, where he is working with a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to use photonic laser technology to identify chemical and biological substances.
“It is a very clever application of adaptive photonic technology we do,” said Levis.
The technology uses ultra-fast laser pulses to blast suspicious substances.
The pulses break up any specific molecule they are tuned for.
The fragments are then weighed in an instrument called a time-of-flight mass spectrometer.
This weight is used to identify the compound or agent.
It only takes two to three minutes to identify a compound using this laser technology, and it is capable of identifying a mixture of many substances at once, Levis said.
“If a gas was in a subway tunnel in New York City, they would need to know what antidote to use to counter-act the gas…We’d tell you what it is, and fast,” said Levis.
Through the DOD’s Multi-University Research Initiative, Levis and his group were granted nearly $4 million over the next five years to conduct their research.
Their biggest task right now “is to demonstrate the ability to analyze multiple agents,” said Levis.
The researchers were recently able to identify two substances at once and are submitting their results to Science Magazine.
“The detection of many…molecules is a hard thing to do,” said Levis.
The DOD has a long list of dangerous substances it wants to be able to identify.
Levis said that there are currently about 10 substances that they are able to identify.
The goal is to create a system that can be used in the field, but the equipment used to detect the substances is currently too large to be used outside of a laboratory.
“The idea is first to minimize it, and there are companies working on that.
Once that is done, the system has to be stable in vehicle, like a Hummer,” said Levis.
Because they are so expensive, he said, a small number of them would probably be kept in strategic locations, like New York and Washington, D.C.
Levis said there are many people in the world working on photonic laser technology, but not for the purpose of chemical and biological agent detection.
“We were certainly the first [in the field],” he said.
Levis came to Temple in September and is solely doing research right now, but will teach in a couple of years.
He said he was attracted to Temple “because there are a lot of resources in the areas I’m most interested in – photonics and lasers…and state of the art laboratory space.”
Levis brought three of his ultra-fast laser systems to the University and will be adding a fourth, making Temple the largest ultra-fast laser facility in Pennsylvania.
Levis’s laser technology is also being applied to living cells as they develop bio-photonic technology.
“We’re using bio-photonics to develop new techniques for cancer detection by using near-infrared light that penetrates deep into human tissue without doing damage,” he said.
Kim Teplitzky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.