DARPA program seeks compact, affordable biological detectors

The Defense Advance Research Projects Agency announced on Tuesday that it is seeking proposals for cheaper, smaller lasers to be used for biological and chemical agent detection.

DARPA's Laser UV Sources for Tactical Efficient Raman program seeks to create a new class of ultraviolet lasers that are more than 300 times smaller than current lasers and 10 times more efficient. The resulting technology could save size, weight and power when used in current detection systems.

"Today's standoff detection systems are so large and heavy that trucks are required to move them," Dan Green, the program manager for DARPA, said. "LUSTER seeks to develop new laser sources for breakthrough chemical and biological agent detection systems that are compact and light enough to be carried by an individual, while being more efficient than today's systems. We also want to take a couple of zeroes off the price tag."

Raman spectroscopy uses lasers to measure molecular vibrations to accurately and quickly identify unknown substances. UV lasers can be used for Raman spectroscopy at stand-off distances to protect the users from biological and chemical agents. Current UV-based tactical detection systems are expensive, large and have limited functionality.

DARPA said it hopes that LUSTER can build on accomplishments from the recently completed Compact Mid-Ultraviolet Technology program, which approached the high efficiencies and wavelengths sought under LUSTER. Light emitting diodes, which were used in the program, do not have the sensitivity required for discriminating among compounds. LUSTER is seeking the low cost and high reliability of LEDs with higher sensitivity.

"In addition to detecting chemical and biological agents in the field-or at home to protect against mass terror attacks-UV lasers have many other uses," Green said. "The new class of UV lasers envisioned from the LUSTER program is expected to impact a broad range of applications such as point-of-need medical diagnostics, advanced manufacturing and compact atomic clocks."

DARPA is hosting a proposers' day workshop in support of the LUSTER program on March 18.