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Thorlabs-Bari research partnership formed to advance gas sensing technologies

06 Jun 2017

Polysense, based at the University of Bari, Italy, will benefit from Thorlabs' €2m investment and equipment.

Photonics products manufacturer Thorlabs is to establish PolySense, a joint industry-university research laboratory, in the physics department of the Technical University in Bari, Italy. The aim is to focus on the research and development of innovative optical gas sensing systems.

This move follows Thorlabs' established research collaborations with Vincenzo Spagnolo, an expert in optical gas sensing and associate professor at TUB. Prof. Spagnolo will serve as the director of PolySense – a term derived from Polytechnic-Sensor.

The detection and measurement of trace gas concentrations is important in applications such as environmental monitoring of greenhouse gases, disease diagnosis, industrial process control analysis and detection of toxic gases. Prof. Spagnolo’s group has much experience with the quartz-enhanced photoacoustic spectroscopy (QEPAS) technique, which uses a quartz tuning fork (QTF) as a detector for photo-acoustic signals.

Highly sensitive

The use of QEPAS enables extremely small concentrations of potentially harmful gases (a few tens of parts per trillion) to be measured.

Based on the QEPAS technique and Thorlabs' engineering and manufacturing expertise, the PolySense lab will endeavor to design and produce QTF designs, optimized for different operation conditions. These QTFs will be incorporated into jointly-designed acoustic detection modules to produce sensor prototypes for highly sensitive real-time measurements.

The US company plans to invest more than €2 million over the next ten years, providing the necessary equipment valued at a further €500 thousand and will create positions for fixed-term researchers, post-doc graduates and doctoral students, who will work closely with Thorlabs staff from its operation in Munich, Germany.

The ultimate goal is to provide portable solutions for in situ and real-time gas detection, leading to advancements in breath analysis, environmental monitoring, leaks detection, hydrocarbon gas sensing, and monitoring of toxic gases and explosive precursors.

"We are excited to continue our partnership with Professor Spagnolo's research group through this newly formed partnership," said Verena Mackowiak, Team Leader of Research Projects at Thorlabs GmbH. "We look forward to identifying innovative ideas and sharing expertise to make highly sensitive QEPAS-based trace-gas sensors more accessible to a broader community."

To support the newly-formed strategic partnership, Thorlabs will provide the necessary instrumentation, technical staff and funding for both the research and personnel, while the university will provide the laboratory and office space and perform the research.

Group objectives

In an interview with the university’s website, Professor Spagnolo explained what sort of sensors the group is aiming to develop: “The sensors will use one of the most sensitive techniques for detecting gaseous traces: the quartz diapason photoacoustic spectroscopy.

”This technique is based on the photo-acoustic effect. When the molecules of a gas are lit with intermittent laser light they heat up and cool, producing sound waves. In the technique developed by us, the laser light is focused between the teeth of a quartz diapason, similar to those in the watches and smartphones.

”If the laser intermittent frequency is equal to that of the resonance of the diapason, it starts to vibrate. Thanks to the piezoelectric properties of quartz, these vibrations generate an electrical signal that is proportional to the concentration of the gas molecules to be detected."

The Spagnolo-led research group comprises Dr. Pietro Patimisco, Angelo Sampaolo and Marilena Giglio. This lab is a world leader in the field of gas detection by a photo-acoustic spectroscopy with a quartz diapason. It already holds the worldwide sensitivity record for this technique (detection of 1 molecule in over 20 billion) and is the only one to use this laser emission technique in the spectral range of terahertz.

Recently, Spagnolo’s group developed a system capable of amplifying more than two hundred times the power of laser light passing through the diapason teeth and, consequently, the photo-acoustic signal through highly reflective mirrors. Potentially this latter technique would make it possible to reveal concentrations of up to a few billiards, or to reveal a few tens of molecules over a million trillion others.

Thorlabs will work on real-time field and real-time sensors in various types of applications including: breath analysis, automotive exhaust gauge measurement, industrial process control, leakage measurement, and detection of Precursors of highly toxic explosives or gases that can be used for anti-terrorist purposes.

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