An international research group has developed a world-first fiber optic technology which may help detect a wide range of gases with unprecedented sensitivity. Published in the journal Optica, the discovery involves the creation of a fiber optic device which consists of an invisible infrared laser coupled to an ultra-broadband supercontinuum generator – two elements that researchers have never managed to combine into a single optical system before. Led by Macquarie University scientists in Australia, the group believes that potential applications for this technology range from breath analysis to air-quality monitoring.

According to lead researcher Dr. Darren Hudson of Macquaraie University, “This new supercontinuum technology is capable of being used to detect an array of gases, including methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide – gases that can be harmful to humans in high levels and have implications in climate change.”

Over the past decade, researchers around the globe have worked to create high-brightness sources of infrared light – an invisible form of light that sits just beyond visible red light in the spectrum. While this work has revolutionized how we detect and measure a staggering range of molecules, the current technology still requires large laser systems, optical laboratory conditions and an expert operator.

According to Dr. Hudson, this new fiber optic-based system will make this technology much smaller and easier to use. He stated, “While previous research has led to ultra-broadband supercontinuum sources, we’ve managed to squeeze this technology into a system that can be completely fiber integrated – called an “all fiber” system – protecting it from outside influences and making it much easier to use in a broad range of scientific and medical situations, including operating in harsh environments.”

To achieve the first “all fiber” system, researchers first developed a new kind of fiber optic laser that emits infrared light in extremely short bursts (180 millionths of a nanosecond). They then fired these laser pulses into a special type of microwire fiber, developed by collaborators at McGill University and Laval University in Canada. The resulting supercontinuum performance of the new fiber optic technology matched the best performance from large laser systems, but in a package that could one day fit in the palm of a person’s hand

The researchers now hope to work with collaborators to test different ways the technology can be used. Because the new system could be capable of detecting trace gases in various environments, the research group is hoping to work with others to test its use in various applications including breath analysis for early disease detection, environmental monitoring for emissions, climate change monitoring and in industrial settings where fracking and mining take place.

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