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High-tech start-up company developing commercial applications for unique optical composite media created at New Mexico State University

A unique optical material developed by New Mexico State University scientists holds great promise for anti-terrorism efforts, medical diagnostics, telecommunications and other fields, said the head of a new company that has licensed the technology.

Won-Tae Kim, research scientist at LaSys Inc., works with laser equipment in the Las Cruces company's laboratory. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

V. Smith, president of LaSys Inc., said the Las Cruces company is focusing first on developing a remote-sensing system for the U.S. Air Force to use in detecting chemical and biological warfare agents. The ultra-sensitive system would be mounted on unmanned aircraft and also used for detection purposes on the ground.

The same characteristics that make the technology useful in this application will lead to advances in other areas, including non-invasive alternatives to medical diagnostic procedures that now require invasive techniques, Smith predicted.

The technology is based on optical composite materials developed by New Mexico State University physics researchers that have shown remarkable enhanced optical amplification characteristics. The composites consist of optical micro-amplifiers known as microcavities - basically tiny glass tubes -- and nanoparticles of metal fractals that are applied on the surface of the microcavities.

Microcavities and fractals both have the ability to enhance optical signals. The composites developed at NMSU have shown huge signal amplifications -- enhancements that measure in the millions and trillions.

What this means, Smith said, is that sensors using these composites should be sensitive enough to detect chemical substances when only a few molecules are present -- and perhaps even a single molecule could be detected.

The dramatic amplification also makes it possible for devices using these composites to operate at very low power levels, he said. No megawatt laser would be needed for a remote sensor -- in many applications it could use a laser weaker than the ones in laser pointing devices.

LaSys (the name is a contraction of Laser Systems) is receiving funds from the second of two research contracts provided by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory. The current four-year, $3.2 million contract is focused on development of a remote chemical and biological detector system that exploits these capabilities.

Mounted on an unmanned aircraft, or drone, the device would emit a low-power laser beam and use spectroscopy to analyze the scattered light that returns. Because every chemical substance creates a unique spectral signature, the ultra-sensitive system would detect the presence of chemical or biological warfare agents from a distance.

LaSys also has received several technology support grants from the Space Alliance Technology Outreach Program (SATOP), a New Mexico-based program funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The same technology can be used in contact, as opposed to remote, sensors. Working with members of New Mexico's congressional delegation, LaSys is seeking federal funding for the development of a field-ready contact device for detecting food-borne and water-borne pathogens. The company envisions a hand-held device that can check for an array of organisms -- bacteria, viruses and protozoans that can cause illness -- and provide real-time digital readouts. Initial funding support for this effort is coming from a grant from the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute.

Smith believes such a device would be valuable in numerous applications, including the testing of imported food products at U.S. border crossings, quick field analysis of water supplies and the detection of drugs, explosives and toxic chemicals.

Perhaps the biggest potential for the technology, after it has proven itself in applications such as these, will be in the field of medical diagnostics, Smith said.

Because of the extremely low power requirements for sensors utilizing the composites, they could be used for fast and non-invasive diagnostic tests, he said. Certain types of brain chemistry analysis, for example, may be possible by focusing a weak laser signal on the fluid inside a person's eye rather than taking a sample of brain fluid.

"In the case of a traumatic brain injury, you want to know quickly how serious it is," Smith said. "There are two amino acids that circulate through brain tissue after traumatic brain injury, and they are precursors to the damage that is caused by brain swelling and the lack of oxygen to brain cells. The proposed system will have the ability to detect not only these amino acids but also other chemicals that are implicated in a variety of brain and systemic conditions."

The scattered-light signals that are used to identify molecules in this type of spectroscopy are known as Raman signals. Because Raman signals are weak, normally it takes a fairly powerful laser source to generate signals adequate for analysis, and such a laser would damage the tissues of the eye. The composites first identified at New Mexico State University and now being developed by LaSys can enhance the signals so dramatically that analysis is possible using a laser source weaker than a penlight, Smith said.

The optical composites are based on research by NMSU physics faculty members Robert Armstrong and Vladimir Shalaev (who is now at Purdue University). The New Mexico State University Technology Transfer Corp. has filed several patent applications on the technology.

Through an unusual agreement with the university, LaSys Inc. has an exclusive worldwide license to develop and commercialize the technology and future applications. In return the university has accepted an equity ownership position in the company.

"A more typical arrangement would be for the university and the inventors to receive a license fee and royalties," Smith said. "With an equity relationship, if the company is successful the university will directly benefit from that success and the potential is much broader. Both the university and the company agree that LaSys' future success will serve as a good model for other technology transfer ventures emanating from NMSU research activities."

The company's success also would mean more high-tech, high-paying jobs in Las Cruces and the surrounding area, he said.

Dan Dwyer, the university's vice provost for research, said the university encourages economic development based on emerging technologies.

"This is an example of the type of activity that the university is very interested in promoting -- moving basic research into the commercial sector to stimulate economic development in the Mesilla Valley and beyond," Dwyer said.

Located in the university's Genesis Center, the company will benefit from a continuing relationship with key scientists who have been involved and will continue to be involved in the development of the company's technology. LaSys also will have access to university facilities and equipment, on a fee-for-service basis, that are not routinely available to an emerging small company. Armstrong and Shalaev, plus other researchers at NMSU and elsewhere, serve as scientific advisers to the company.

First photo is available at http://ucommphoto.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/kim_lasys.jpg.
CUTLINE: Won-Tae Kim, research scientist at LaSys Inc., works with laser equipment in the Las Cruces company's laboratory. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Second photo is available at http://ucommphoto.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/microcavity_lasys.jpg.
CUTLINE: Optical composites developed by New Mexico State University researchers utilize microcavities made from tiny glass tubes like this. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Karl Hill
Dec. 12, 2002