MSU Spinoff Wants to Zap Battlefield Explosives with Smart Lasers

Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor — 

Improvised explosive devices (IED) have been the scourge of the U.S. military in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon has spent billions of dollars on high tech tools in order to defeat such frustratingly low tech weapons.

East Lansing, MI-based BioPhotonic Solutions wants to add one more tool to the kit. The startup’s founder, Michigan State University chemistry professor Marcos Dantus, along with researchers from the Harvard University, are developing “smart” lasers that can identify chemical molecules—such as those found on IEDs—by measuring their vibrations. The lasers could have applications not only in the military, but in medicine as well.

In the IED example, a soldier traveling in a convoy in Afghanistan aims a laser down the road. The laser spots the unique chemical signature of the explosive TNT or the artillery shells commonly found in IEDs. Dantus says the laser currently possesses a range of 40 feet, though such a battlefield device is still a way off.

In 2005, the company received a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to explore ways pulse lasers can detect explosives and nerve agents. BioPhotonic is currently working on a similar project with the Department of Homeland Security, Dantus said.

In a study published in February’s issue of the journal Nature Photonics, a laser microscope developed by Dantus and his team uses short bursts of energy to excite molecules, creating a unique vibration signature scientists can use to identify the chemical. Differences in vibrations are extremely hard to detect—that’s why the research is so valuable, Dantus says.

The technology offers vast opportunities in medicine. For instance, Harvard researchers envision the microscope as a non-invasive alternative to skin cancer biopsies, in which doctors must cut out a piece of tissue and send it to a laboratory for testing. Smart microscopes could also help doctors measure how the body absorbs drugs by analyzing the hair or skin.

Eventually, Dantus thinks device makers will attach these smart lasers to endoscopic devices, which can scan tumors deep in the human body.

BioPhotonic Solutions, which Dantus founded in 2003, sells technology that measures, shapes, and compresses laser pulses to laser manufacturers like Coherent, Spectra Physics, and Quantronix. The company, which has received Small Business Technology Transfer (SBTT) and National Science Foundation grants, generates gross revenues in excess of $1 million.

BioPhotonic is not the only university spinoff to exploring IED detection from afar. Based in Stillwater, MN, Ascir, a recent spinoff from the University of Minnesota, is developing “microblometers” that convert infrared radiation emitted by gases and chemicals into measurable electrical signals.