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May 25, 2007

Ultra Short Pulse Lasers

Business Week has an interesting article about the applications and potential of ultra-short pulse lasers (USP)

USP lasers switch on and off at impossibly high rates--as quickly as once every femtosecond, or a billionth of a millionth of a second. Those concentrated blasts can obliterate any material by literally knocking electrons out of an atom's neighborhood. That means the lasers can do their job a few atoms at a time if need be, without heating up surrounding material. Since the zapped material is ablated into oblivion, there's nothing to heat up or melt.

Raydiance is one of a half-dozen companies, including IMRA America and Fianium, that have brought USP products down to the size of window air conditioners. Raydiance has developed software to make it easier for all kinds of companies to apply the technology to their businesses, even if their tech team isn't populated with optical engineering PhDs. "It's the difference between operating a mainframe and a Macintosh," says Goldblatt, who has since left the Pentagon and joined Raydiance's board.

Raydiance, a startup, has cranked its lasers up to 200 watts, more than 40 times the power of current USP models. If it pulls off its plan to hit 1000 watts or more, a Raydiance box on a piloted plane or drone cruising at 10,000 feet could scan the sides of a road to detect concealed bombs, says Les Lyles, a retired four-star general who once oversaw the Air Force's Star Wars missile defense efforts. Because its rays are invisible and generate no heat, such a laser could be programmed to identify the bits of sub-atomic detritus it ablates from a target to determine its composition, "and no one would know," says Lyle, who is an investor in Raydiance. Ultimately, it's possible the lasers could be dialed up to higher power levels to serve as "photon missiles," to fry the electronic trigger in the roadside bomb, he adds.

The first machine Raydiance built was shipped to the Food & Drug Administration, whose researchers are trying to further improve LASIK eye surgery. Heat generated from the use of conventional lasers sometimes causes harmful deformations in a patient's cornea--a less likely side-effect with USP lasers. Raydiance is also working with Silicon Valley startup EpiRay, which hopes to use USP lasers to remove unwanted tattoos. After all, there are some 10 million Gen Y-ers who might someday be candidates.

The FDA and others are exploring various cancer therapies, and Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas is studying whether Raydiance's technology could be used to treat burn victims, says professor of surgery Ahamed Idris. The idea is to ablate the scorched tissue to inhibit toxic cell secretions that amplify a burn victim's pain and that can trigger organ failure, Idris' team believes. He has applied for grants with the U.S. Army to find ways to treat soldiers at MASH units quickly and painlessly before sending them to hospitals. "We're often reluctant to give general anesthesia" to badly burned people, he says. With this approach "we might be able to get away with intravenous pain medicine."

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