Tuesday, February 26, 2008
N.M. Scientists Explore Laser Uses, Tech Spinoffs
By Susan Montoya Bryan/
Nancy McMillan, head of New Mexico State University's geological sciences department, had found herself at a dead end.
She studied gemstones for years and knew it would be possible to develop a marketable way of using lasers to spot fake stones from the real ones and to build a database that could help pinpoint the origins of individual gems.
But the laser she was working with could only go so far before damaging the precious stones.
"The problem is you're putting these visible holes in people's gems and people just have no sense of humor," she said jokingly.
McMillan now has a chance to further her research thanks to an ultra-short pulse laser that developers say will change the way people do things — all while putting New Mexico's intellectual capital to work and spurring economic development in the state.
"We feel like this is one of those big breakthrough technologies that comes along once about every decade and if our vision plays out, this will get cheaper and smaller and more powerful with every generation," said Scott Davidson, president of Raydiance Inc., the laser's developer.
The laser — packed in a box about the size of a microwave oven — warms up in minutes and puts out short pulses of light that could be used to analyze everything from rubies and sapphires to human cells.
Raydiance has partnered with universities, hospitals and private businesses around the country to develop potential uses for the laser. In New Mexico, the team includes NMSU, New Mexico Tech, the University of New Mexico and Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories.
Aside from McMillan, a handful of other researchers at NMSU have projects prepared for the laser. Biology professor Elba Serrano wants to develop applications for imaging cells of the nervous system. She said the wavelength emitted by the laser would benefit her work since it's on the far end of the spectrum that's known to be the least toxic to the body.
Like Serrano, McMillan said she was excited about the chance to use the ultra-short pulse laser.
"The timing for me was just about perfect because my work with the nano-second laser had progressed to the point where I knew that this could work," she said.
With the USP laser, she said the damage to gems is far less than that done by traditional machines used in laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, a process in which a photon of light is captured from electrons in the material to determine chemical composition.
McMillan also said the USP laser can polish materials, meaning it may be able to erase whatever microscopic tracks it leaves on a precious gem.
George Rossman, a mineralogy professor at Cal Tech, acknowledged that some in the gem industry might not think analyzing stones with a laser is as glorious as some in the academic world. He said gemologists have other methods, such as microscopes and florescence tests, that work without damaging the stones.
Still, he said: "There's no silver bullet. Any instrument has its certain strengths and certain weaknesses and the ability to do chemical analysis on stones with minimal damage is a very important part of the arsenal of gemological tools."
He said laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy is good when it comes to providing a gem's trace element chemistry. And those chemical fingerprints are what McMillan needs to build her database.
Wynn Egginton, associate vice president for research at NMSU, said the work being done by McMillan and the others would not have been possible without $1 million in state funds and the partnership between Raydiance and the New Mexico Economic Development Department.
"This project is a model for ways that government, higher education and private industry can partner to really advance economic development in the state," she said. "Our faculty members are able to advance their research in new directions to develop technology that can be commercialized."
State officials expect their investment to pay dividends for New Mexico, which has been focused in recent years on attracting high-tech jobs with tax breaks, worker training programs and other incentives.
Stephan Helgeson, director of EDD's Office of Science and Technology, couldn't say exactly how much the state stands to gain but he noted that in the drug company world, the cost of taking a drug to market is about $1 billion in 10 years.
With ultra-short pulse laser technology, he said: "The return on investment could be significantly more and significantly shorter. We're looking at a very short timeline and a wider potential field of users."
Helgeson compared USP technology to an incision made by a practiced surgeon that leaves fewer scars.
There are other USP lasers out there, but Scott Davidson of Raydiance has high hopes for his version. It's much smaller than the room-size lasers researchers often work with and it can be operated using a laptop.
"We believe that this is kind of the silicon moment that we went through in the late 70s and 80s when you went from these big room-sized computers to small accessible computers that drove the last 30 years of innovation and trillions of dollars in value. It's sort of same thing going on in photonics," he said.
Davidson, a former AOL executive, hopes to work with state leaders to create a center of excellence around USP laser development. He said the center could serve as an "incubator" that would pump out ideas centered around laser technology that could lead to new businesses.
State officials are definitely interested.
"That's part of our strategy," Helgeson said, "to find those niches, those high-tech niches of opportunity, and open them up through a close partnership with the state."
He acknowledged that there are areas where New Mexico has had difficulty in grabbing technology before it leaves the state. He said the key is bringing companies like Raydiance to New Mexico and keeping them here.
Davidson said Raydiance, which has research and manufacturing operations in Florida and California, hopes to expand into New Mexico.
"When I look at New Mexico I kind of see Silicon Valley version 2.0," Davidson said. "... It has its challenges but it has so many assets and it should be a shining example of what we can do in terms of innovation in this country."
Copyright ©2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.