Physicists at JILA have designed and demonstrated a highly sensitive new tool for real-time analysis of the quantity, structure and dynamics of a variety of atoms and molecules simultaneously, even in minuscule gas samples. The technology could provide unprecedented capabilities in many settings, such as chemistry laboratories, environmental monitoring stations, security sites screening for explosives or biochemical weapons, and medical offices where patients breath is analyzed to monitor disease.
The new JILA technique uses infrared laser light in many different colors, or frequencies, to identify trace levels of different molecules at the same time. For example, water molecules (blue) and ammonia molecules (green) absorb light at very specific characteristic frequencies. The pattern of frequencies absorbed forms a "signature" for identifying the molecules and their concentrations.
Described in the March 17 issue of Science,* the new technology is an adaptation of a conventional technique, cavity ring-down spectroscopy, for identifying chemicals based on their interactions with light. The JILA system uses an ultrafast laser-based "optical frequency comb" as both the light source and as a ruler for precisely measuring the many different colors of light after the interactions. The technology offers a novel combination of a broad range of frequencies (or bandwidth), high sensitivity, precision and speed. A provisional patent application has been filed.
JILA is a joint institute of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a non-regulatory agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the University of Colorado at Boulder.
By comparison, conventional cavity ring-down spectroscopy offers comparable sensitivity but a narrow bandwidth of about 1 nanometer. A more sensitive "optical nose" technique developed at NIST can identify one molecule among 1 trillion others, but can analyze only one frequency of light at a time. Other methods, such as Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, provide large bandwidths and high speed but are not sensitive enough to detect trace gases.
Laura Ost | EurekAlert!
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