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NMSU and labs will collaborate to build laser prototype to purify water

For years, unwanted water-borne microorganisms have made their way into dental unit waterlines that connect the dentist's handpieces to the water supply.

Yu-Ping Tang, a staff engineer with NMSU's Manufacturing Technology and Engineering Center (M-TEC), discusses a computer model (rear) he developed in preparation for an upcoming project in which M-TEC engineers hope to collaborate with national labs in Ne

Microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and protozoans colonize and replicate on the interior surfaces of dental waterline tubing and eventually combine to form a germ reservoir.

But the future looks bright for the dental industry because it will have a new tool to use in its daily battle for cleanliness.

New Mexico State University's Manufacturing Technology and Engineering Center (M-TEC) and national laboratories in New Mexico are planning to collaborate to develop a water purification laser that will kill microorganisms at the point of use.

The device, based on technology developed by Albuquerque-based SALtech Corp., will use ultraviolet lasers to zap microorganisms in waterlines used in medical, residential and commercial applications.

The Space Alliance Technology Outreach program, a NASA-funded economic development organization, will help SALtech coordinate additional support from the laboratories and education institutions throughout the state.

"M-TEC is going to take SALtech's technology and make a commercially viable product," said Anthony Hyde, director of NMSU's M-TEC and an associate professor of engineering.

The prototype will include stainless steel, watertight cavities that are highly polished internally and they must accommodate ultraviolet light sources necessary for the sterilization of contaminated water. SALtech is working toward an alliance between the national labs to provide expertise and assistance with tunable and semiconductor ultraviolet lasers, which will be used to carry out laboratory testing of the effectiveness of several laser wavelengths against microorganisms.

Hyde said the laser hits water right at the outlet, thereby preventing any built-up microorganisms that may have been formed in the storage system from reaching the user.

"We are working towards a system that can purify water quickly, efficiently and effectively," he said.

The university's role in the project goes beyond developing a prototype. The NMSU biology department will provide testing and analysis of the water samples and NMSU's College of Business Administration and Economics will help with a business plan and marketing strategies for the product.

SALtech wants to partner with NMSU "because it has the breadth of expertise to do the biological, physical, mechanical and business segments of the project all at one institution," said Michael Baca, president of SALtech.

The partnership among all the institutions was coordinated and spearheaded by Jerry Sandoval, community development representative and Native American liaison with the New Mexico Economic Development Department.

The current target market for the laser is the dental industry, but SALtech also plans a larger, commercial-grade water sterilization system that can be used for government applications as well as general residential and commercial uses.

M-TEC, which is under NMSU's College of Engineering, specializes in design, product and prototype development, engineering, analysis, process improvement, testing and evaluation and workforce development.

SALtech Corp. is a New Mexico-based corporation founded in 1996 to develop, patent and exploit intellectual property. Its focus has been on developing environment-related technical solutions for medical, commercial and residential markets.