A one-of-a-kind new mega laser capable of quickly analyzing the chemical makeup of metals, plastics, biological materials – and even dust – has been delivered to Portsmouth.
The femtosecond laser ablation (LA) and laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) system – installed at the University of Portsmouth last month – brings together several newly developed technologies.
It’s the only one of its kind at a university in the UK or Europe, and among many other uses it may hold the key to finally understanding how microplastics can harm human health.
It works by projecting samples with a powerful laser pulse, which creates a high temperature plasma. This plasma can then be examined to determine the chemical elements.
The highly specialized instrument was delivered to the University School of the Environment, Geography and Geosciences with funding of Â£ 950,000 from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).
Professor of geology, Craig Floor, led the team that won the funding. He said: âThis laser produces incredibly short pulses of energy, a million times shorter than most commercially available lasers, but what is most impressive is that it can analyze composition. samples by removing minimal amounts of material.
âPreviously, if you used laser ablation technology to analyze a sample of plastic, it would melt and destroy it. This laser can now examine potentially toxic elements of the plastics from the surface inside. “
It can also accurately analyze very small fragments of materials such as microplastics and dust.
This laser produces incredibly short pulses of energy, a million times shorter than most commercially available lasers, but what is most impressive is that it can analyze the composition of samples by removing particles. minimum quantities of material.
Professor Storey said: ‘Research by my colleagues in Portsmouth has revealed that we are surrounded by microplastics in our homes and in the environment, but we do not yet know how the potential toxicity of these materials could affect our health.
“This laser can reveal all the toxic elements in microplastics so that we can better understand their impact on us.”
However, its use is not limited to plastics, the laser will also be used for a wide range of research. Planned projects include the engineering and recycling of Li-ion batteries, the impact of environmental conditions on marine organisms, the evolution of the Earth and other planets over time, the history of historical artefacts and how to preserve them, and even the analysis of traces of evidence at crime scenes.