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Pitt Engineer Working With Homeland Security On Laser Technology


The Mars Rover Curiosity recently used a high-powered laser beam to blast and analyze a Martian rock. 140 million miles away, an engineer at the University of Pittsburgh is working with the Department of Homeland Security to improve that technology to make Earth safer.

The blasting method used by Curiosity that employs a beam of light is called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS), which can detect the composition of soils and rocks without ever touching them.

Pitt associate professor of electrical engineering Kevin Chen, said the laser excites atoms, which causes them to explode.

“Subsequently, the excited atom is going to produce light. From the color of light they’re emitting, we will find out what kind of atom that this sample has, so that’s how it works,” Chen said.

One of the major obstacles for the technology is something knows as the Matrix Effect, which Chen said, produces inaccurate data. “Sometimes if you use a laser to evaporate material, the material you evaporate—the composition you see is not quite the same as the actual composition in the sample,” Chen said.

Along with another investigator, Chen’s research aims to fine-tune the LIBS process. Their goal is to design shorter laser pulses so molecules do not have enough time to change, which will make blasting heavy atoms easier. They will then work towards building a compact, ultra-fast laser that can be used by the Department of Homeland Security to check materials as they pass through our borders.

The Department of Defense has provided a $1.12 million grant for the project, which began in May and will extend until 2015 with the option of a two-year extension.