Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder are developing technology that would outfit first responders and security personnel with the ability to identify and neutralize airborne threats.

Under the project, dubbed Standoff Aerosol measUrement Remote Optical Network, or “SAURON” — so called for the all-seeing villain from “The Lord of the Rings” — a suitcase-like, laser-based device identifies the contents of chemical clouds or clouds of tiny unknown droplets encountered by workers at an industrial plant, for instance, following equipment failure.

Source: Greg Rieker, Casey Cass/CU BoulderSource: Greg Rieker, Casey Cass/CU Boulder

Ideally, the device will be able to tell safety crews what is present in the cloud of chemicals or tiny droplets so that they know how to respond.

According to the researchers, SAURON will focus in on small particles floating in the air — for instance, chemicals like ammonium nitrate, a common ingredient in explosives, or fentanyl — using Nobel Prize-winning technology known as a frequency comb laser.

This so-called "all-seeing" device promises to detect hazardous aerosols against an extremely crowded backdrop of other substances, the researchers explained in a statement.

To easily deploy at locations such as city blocks, airports or industrial sites where hazardous materials are used, the frequency comb lasers will run on batteries and instantly alert people of a failure or a leak.

Unlike traditional lasers, frequency comb lasers shoot out a beam of light with an assortment of colors simultaneously, behaving like fingerprint scanners for aerosols while also extracting the signals from even trace amounts of particles in the air.

“At any time in the atmosphere, methane and carbon dioxide are present, and other examples of what we call volatile organic compounds,” the researchers added. “There is a lot of clutter.” Ultimately, the team hopes that the lasers may one day help to sort through that clutter.

Going forward, the University of Colorado Boulder team will attempt to make their lasers even more sensitive using “integrated photonics” technology. The team suggests that they will design its devices on small chips that transmit information via light beams.

The hope for the new technology is that it could help protect people from threats such as industrial accidents or chemical attacks in the near future.

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