'Air Laser' Long-Range Sensor

An 'air laser' sensing technology developed at Princeton may be able to remotely measure airborne environmental pollutants and greenhouse gasses.

"We are able to send a laser pulse out and get another pulse back from the air itself," said Richard Miles, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton, the research group leader and co-author on the paper. "The returning beam interacts with the molecules in the air and carries their finger prints."

(Air Laser)
The image shows a pulse of infra-red light from this "air laser."
have lower intensity light. The technique could be used for sensing
minute quantities of gas in the air from a distance.

The new laser sensing method uses an ultraviolet laser pulse that is focused on a tiny patch of air, similar to the way a magnifying glass focuses sunlight into a hot spot. Within this hot spot a cylinder-shaped region just 1 millimeter long oxygen atoms become "excited" as their electrons get pumped up to high energy levels. When the pulse ends, the electrons fall back down and emit infrared light. Some of this light travels along the length of the excited cylinder region and, as it does so, it stimulates more electrons to fall, amplifying and organizing the light into a coherent laser beam aimed right back at the original laser.

Researchers plan to use a sensor to receive the returning beam and determine what contaminants it encountered on the way back.

"In general, when you want to determine if there are contaminants in the air you need to collect a sample of that air and test it," Miles said. "But with remote sensing you don't need to do that..."

So far, the researchers have demonstrated the process in the laboratory over a distance of about a foot and a half. In the future they plan to increase the distance over which the beams travel, which they note is a straightforward matter of focusing the beam farther way.

Fans of Star Trek: TOS have been eagerly awaiting long range sensor scans that can detect the components of an atmosphere without needing to send crew members in red shirts to gather samples.

(Spock long range sensor scan)

From Eurekalert.

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