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Throwing a light line

A new cheaper laser system will help advance key  research into diabetes and metabolism disorders.

A Lithuanian-Swiss partnership has developed a laser system that will help advance invaluable research into conditions like diabetes and metabolism problems.

Lithuania’s Brolis Semiconductors and the prestigious Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM) say their new laser source, developed on EUREKA project SWIRSENSE, could help scientists measure critical blood constituents like glucose, lactates and urea in a non-invasive way without having to take blood samples from patients.

“This single product can replace hundreds of individual lasers,” says Augustinas Vizbaras, co-founder and head of chip technology at Brolis.

The tunable scientific laser technology allows access to the largely unexplored spectral region between 1.7 and 2.5 μm, the short-wavelength infrared spectral range (SWIR),for new medical and industrial applications.

Brightest minds

Since molecules have unique molecule-specific absorption fingerprints in that spectral region the SWIRSENSE laser can be tuned to detect the relevant molecules. When shone onto a biological substance, blood or a person’s skin, part of the light is absorbed and part is scattered and reflected back, allowing for the concentration level of the relevant metabolite to be recorded.

CSEM’s specialists in precision laser systems suggested that Brolis use its state-of-the-art chip technology to create a table-top compact laser source suitable for testing key biomolecules. The two partners implemented a laser into a prototype table-top sensor and tested it to take readings of glucose, lactate, urea and serum albumin. They showed that the laser source with a certain established performance parameter set was ideal for remote sensing of such molecules.

“This provides completely new insights for researchers and doctors,” says Vizbaras. “And will allow new sensor technologies to be developed which could significantly improve patient healthcare.”

“Our final prototype exceeded our original expectations,” says Vizbaras. He puts that down to an “agile” partnership. He says that without the engineers at CSEM some of the applications possible for Brolis’ laser sensors could have been missed. “We complemented each other at every step. They are some of the brightest minds in the world and they helped us fully unleash the potential of our core technology,” he says.

The researchers have published papers on their breakthrough in academic journals and received an enthusiastic reaction at the laser and optics conference SPIE Phototonics West in San Francisco in early February.

Brolis is continuing its development on the laser source and commercialisation. It has spent €10 million on developing its sensor technology and is seeing the fruits of its investment. Other scientific laser systems on the market, for instance, cost upwards of €70,000. Brolis has managed to create a unique semiconductor component that can be produced on a scale that allows costs to be brought down – to about €10,000 euros or even €5,000 per unit. Its laser source has a performance, output power and tuning bandwidth that exceeds competitor products by at least a factor of 2 to 3.

With more than 422 million people suffering from diabetes in 2014, quadruple the number of 1980, there is a strong demand for any technologies to help accelerate research. “We see a huge market potential for our laser sensors,” says Vizbaras.