Lasers and defence

National Security is an ever present issue, and scientists are constantly working to improve the detection of potentially hazardous chemicals and explosives. Consequently, STFC science could soon be putting the liquids back in your hand luggage.

National Security is an ever present issue, and scientists are constantly working to improve the detection of potentially hazardous chemicals and explosives. Consequently, STFC science could soon be putting the liquids back in your hand luggage.

Key facts

Detecting chemicals before it’s too late

A system capable of remotely identifying, quantifying and locating the release of volatile chemicals would be invaluable for security applications.

Gas-phase chemicals, like the volatiles often emitted by explosives, possess unique spectral fingerprints that allow remote detection using optical techniques. A real-time standoff detection system that exploits these fingerprints could provide improved security at airports and other civil infrastructures, and even on the battlefield.

STFC scientists and partners are currently investigating novel laser based technologies for stand-off detection. Using continuous frequency-tuneable laser sources that are extremely compact and optimised for chemical detection, the team is developing novel instruments with unprecedented spatial resolution, chemical selectivity and compactness

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Seeing through opaque bottles

Spatially Offset Raman Spectroscopy (SORS) is a new non-invasive spectroscopy technique developed at STFC’s ultrafast laser facility. It can determine the composition of materials hidden behind or within other layers, such as a liquid concealed in an opaque bottle or container.

The technique has been patented and developed via a spin-out company called Cobalt Light Systems, which seeks to exploit the technique’s wide-ranging potential applications. These include a new capability for detecting hidden explosives and illicit drugs, as well as assessing the quality and authenticity of medicines, and potentially diagnosing bone diseases and cancer non-invasively.

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Towards a new generation of computers

An experiment at STFC’s ISIS facility exploits a laser to assist in providing a unique beam of very low-energy muons. These fundamental particles act as tiny magnets, probing the magnetic properties of target materials at the scale of a nanometre (one billionth of a metre).

This research could help, for example, in characterising semiconductor devices for the next generation of computers, which will make use of an emerging technology called spintronics. Current electronic devices such as transistors work by transferring electrons. However, exploiting the electron’s spin has the potential to lead to faster and more powerful information processing and storage. Spintronics is already used in the read-heads of high capacity hard disks.

In 2007, a key scientific discovery fundamental to spintronics – giant magnetoresistance – was recognised through the award of the Nobel Prize for Physics.

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