Research focus: Lasers of love

November 11, 2011
| By: Aubrey Bloom

Dr. Marlan O. Scully, holder of the Hershel E. Burgess '29 Chair in Physics and a distinguished research chair with the Texas Engineering Experiment Station (TEES), knows that his son Jim, an American Airlines pilot, has to expect the unexpected on any of his flights.

In November 2001, amidst the tumultuous, post-9/11 atmosphere, Jim Scully was piloting a routine flight to Chicago when he received a gut-wrenching phone call from the flight crew. A passenger had been checking her mail when she discovered a suspicious powder in one of the envelopes; passengers were in a panic. After several days of testing, officials determined it was a hoax.

Concerned for his passengers' safety, the pilot did the only thing he knew to do: He challenged his pioneering-physicist father to find a faster way to detect potential bioterrorism agents. Never one to back down from a challenge, Dr. Scully approached the situation the same way he always did -- applying existing knowledge.

He put together a team of top physicists from Texas A&M and Princeton University and he established labs at both universities in hopes of uncovering a swift solution.

"Anthrax was a big problem then, and we found we couldn't get an immediate response when testing [the substance] for identification," Dr. Scully recalls. "Texas A&M is the place where we finally broke the problem, and we nicely developed it at Princeton. Now, we could get an immediate answer."

FAST CARS to the rescue
The team came up with a revolutionary new technique that emitted a powerful signal known as femtosecond adaptive spectroscopic techniques via coherent anti-stokes Raman scattering, or FAST CARS. First, two lasers are aimed at the object, causing a molecular vibration. A third laser pulse is sent in on a time-delay, just long enough for "false-alarm" molecules with a smaller oscillation to cease their movement, allowing molecules that are still vibrating to become the true target which amplifies the signature. Scully likens the laser beam to music: The steady rhythm of the beam disrupts molecules by creating a molecular "melody" specific to that material.

The entire process takes only a fraction of a second, putting to bed the older, slower methods of anthrax detection. It also opens new doors for laser technology. They can be used to identify numerous other materials, such as glucose in blood which could one day be beneficial to diabetics, or to determine moisture levels in crops, taking the guesswork out of when and how much to water for farmers.

Lasers in the sky
Dr. Scully is now applying those lessons to his current research, dubbed "ghost lasers in the sky" -- a laser system capable of detecting threats, from poisonous gas to pollutants, in the upper atmosphere without ever opening an envelope or even leaving the ground.

"One kilogram of anthrax in an airplane applied upwind could do a lot of damage," Dr. Scully notes. "One hundred kilograms could kill more people than an atomic bomb. Our sky laser technique can detect poison gas in the atmosphere at very low levels tens of kilometers away. Right now we have techniques for measuring pollution, gases and other formerly untraceable substances. While LIDAR [Light Detection And Ranging] looks at backscattered light, we're getting much bigger results with the sky laser.

"Because of quantum physics, we have the potential for computers that are exponentially faster, microscopes that are more precise and lasers that produce results almost without limits," Scully says. "That Texas A&M is doing world-class research in quantum physics is already understood everywhere, for sure."

A bright future
Although he's received an ample amount of praise during his entire career, Dr. Scully says he is most excited to be working with a group of colleagues in Texas A&M's Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering (IQSE) who personify the fact that it's the sum of each part which makes for such a greater whole.

As director of the IQSE, Scully leads a research-based effort that spans the gamut of quantum physics and engineering and focuses on the study of new lasers, quantum computing, nonlinear optics and more -- technologies that will impact any number of fields, from national security and bioscience to navigation and refinery safety.

It's no great surprise that Scully sees a bright future, both for Texas A&M and for IQSE research and development.


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