Marcos Dantus, chemistry department
Marcos Dantus, chemistry department Michigan State University

A team of researchers have developed a laser with the potential to cover large areas and detect improvised explosive devices (IEDs), commonly called roadside bombs.

Researchers from Michigan State University (MSU) said the laser they've managed to develop has comparable output to a simple presentation pointer. However, it potentially has the sensitivity and selectivity to canvas large areas and identify the presence of roadside bombs, which they say account for about 60 percent of coalition soldiers' deaths.

Roadside bombs are considered the deadliest enemy weapon to be encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan. To be able to detect the presence of IEDs in the field would be an advantage for coalition forces.

However, researchers have said this detection, though extremely important, is challenging because the environment introduces a variety of chemical compounds that mask the select few molecules the laser is trying to detect.

Marcos Dantus, a chemistry professor and founder of BioPhotonic Solutions, led the team and the published results can be found in the current issue of Applied Physics Letters. BioPhotonic Solutions is a company Dantus launched in 2003 to commercialize technology invented in a spinoff from his research group at MSU. The research is also funded in part by the Department of Homeland Security.

Having molecular structure sensitivity is critical for identifying explosives and avoiding unnecessary evacuation of buildings and closing roads due to false alarms, Dantus said in a statement.

IEDs can be found in populated areas, and therefore, the researchers said the methods to detect these kinds of weapons must be nondestructive.

These methods must also be able to differentiate explosives from the many different kinds of similar compounds that can be found in urban environments.

Dantus' latest laser can do just that -- even for quantities as small as a fraction of a billionth of a gram, according to the university.

Researchers said the laser beam works by combining short pulses that kick the molecules and make them vibrate, as well as long pulses that are used to listen and identify the different chords.

The chords include various vibrational frequencies that uniquely identify every molecule -- much like a fingerprint. The high-sensitivity laser is able to work together with cameras and allows for users to scan questionable areas from a safe distance.

The laser and the method we've developed were originally intended for microscopes, but we were able to adapt and broaden its use to demonstrate its effectiveness for standoff detection of explosives, Dantus said.

He hopes to secure additional funding so that researche can move the laser from the lab and out into the field.