USF research leads to contaminant-sensing lasers

Since the attacks of Sept. 11, many have feared that our nation’s water supplies are vulnerable to contamination by biological agents.

Thats why USF physics professor Dennis Killinger is conducting research to detect harmful chemicals such as anthrax and various viral strains.

On Oct. 6, Killinger went before Congress to present his research on advances in laser detection technology. Lasers, he said, can be used to sense chemicals and biological agents in bodies of water.

“The purpose of the presentation before Congress was to inform the staffers and Congress of the importance of this science and the role that it plays in homeland security,” Killinger said.

Killinger is also scheduled to give presentations in Boston and Japan.

According to Killinger, his research will continue to make advances that have applications in the prevention of terrorist attacks.

“We are developing new lasers that can be used to sense chemical species at distances up to a mile away,” Killinger said. “We are also looking at using lasers for the sensing of chemicals in water.”

Current technology can detect foreign chemicals or biological agents in water in a matter of hours or days, but researchers are trying to scale the process down to minutes or seconds, he said.

Christine Owen, the water quality assurance officer for Tampa Bay Water, said the technology Killinger is working on is theoretically possible but that Tampa Bay Water currently checks for changes in water quality, not specific agents.

Tampa Bay Water supplies water to utility companies in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties and uses computers to monitor the quality of the water in its pipes.

“We do have a vast array of online quality monitors. In a real-time perspective, our crew is aware of the quality of water,” Owen said.

If the pattern changes to something the computers recognize as harmful, the company is instantly alerted.

Owen said there are no field-tested technologies approved by the Environmental Protection Agency available to test water for specific biological and chemical agents.

However, Owen said there have been inventions to detect terrorist threats in the past.

“A couple of years ago, there was a company going to the different small utility companies in the area,” Owen said. “They said they had a black box that could detect anthrax. The technology for that isn’t up now; they didn’t have it back then.”

But Killinger said technological advancements in the past 20 years have progressed laser technology so significantly that detection technology isn’t out of reach.

“When I started, lasers were much larger, about the size of a large television set,” Killinger said. “Now they’re about the size of a camera.”

Since Sept. 11, interdisciplinary collaboration increased, and there are now more scientists working together at a faster pace, according to Killinger.

Killinger said he’s seen studies focus more on sensing specific chemical and biological agents, such as professor Daniel Lim’s work on an anthrax sensor that can detect the chemical within minutes.

Owen said that while she would welcome a technology that can detect specific agents in water, she doesn’t envision a demonstrative model coming out in the near future.

“It’s really not ready for prime time yet,” Owen said.