A real-time instrument was developed that could scan the atmosphere for toxic agents in order to alert communities to a biological or chemical attack.
The instrument uses infrared lasers to detect even trace amounts of chemicals in the air. Every chemical is made up of individual molecules that vibrate at their own unique frequency; the instrument uses lasers to detect these vibrations. The technique can determine if there is a molecule of any chemical present, even at concentrations as low as one part per billion.
A similar principle is used in the medical field to detect biomarkers for different kinds of health conditions, including cancer, by taking breath samples. The frequencies of molecules are very distinct, like a molecular fingerprint — the laser detects these fingerprints.
The novel approach could lead to developing non-invasive technology, including sensors, that could be used to detect airborne agents encountered in a biological or chemical attack at home or on the battlefield, or traces of life by space explorers on missions to other planets or asteroids