Spotlight on IPAS
IPAS Director Professor Andre Luiten
in the Precision Measurement Laboratories,
The Braggs Building Light is all around us and most of us take it for granted. But scientists at the Institute for Photonics and Advanced Sensing (IPAS) view it differently. For them it’s a powerful tool and they are harnessing that power to make the world a safer, healthier and wealthier place.
Researchers from numerous disciplines are working with industry and government to build unique, ultra-sensitive sensors to provide practical solutions across multiple fields. Here are some of their projects.
Surgery probe cuts cancer trauma
An optical fibre probe being developed by IPAS should improve the accuracy of breast cancer surgery and reduce the trauma for patients. Currently there is no reliable technique for assessing if tissue is healthy or cancerous during surgery, with many patients forced to endure a follow-up operation to remove tumour tissue that was missed.
“We’re working on an optical fibre probe that can be used by the surgeon during the initial surgery for an instant assessment of whether the tissue is cancerous or not,” said Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Erik Schartner. “The tip of the probe simply has to be placed against an unknown area to receive a reading.”
“We’re hoping this will find broad use by surgeons and reduce the worry and trauma to patients who may have to face additional surgeries due to the limitations of existing medical devices.”
Shining light on ancient events
An IPAS research team is shedding new light on the modern and ancient worlds through its advances in luminescence dating. The process is being used to provide exciting new insights into areas of great interest such as the dating of earlier climate change events and the human colonisation of Australia.
“Our research is also helping investigations into a third controversial topic – the timing and cause of the mass extinction of Australian megafauna,” said Adjunct Professor Nigel Spooner.
Luminesence dating measures radiation and energy absorption in samples to provide the age of events from a few months to hundreds of millennia. It’s become a critical tool in areas such as palaeontology, archaeology and the earth sciences.
“The work of our lab is helping to better understand the physics of luminescence to provide even greater accuracy and extend its use in other novel applications,” Nigel said.
Support for the food and beverage sector
Technology developed to identify bacteria in hospitals has been adapted by IPAS and the Adelaide Proteomics Centre to assist the local brewing industry in improving quality control practices. Beer contaminated by spoilage microorganisms can cost brewers thousands of dollars for expensive recalls and cause immeasurable damage to brand reputation.
Dr Florian Weiland said IPAS was using mass spectrometry profiling as a rapid and cost-effective way of identifying spoilage yeast and bacteria during routine testing at various stages of beer production.
“While beer-spoilage microorganisms are harmless to human health, they produce off-flavours in the beer. This technology allows smaller breweries to conduct more extensive testing of their products that would otherwise be cost-prohibitive,” he said.
IPAS has been working with Coopers Brewery to further develop the technology and is also involved in a separate initiative with Mismatch Brewing Co, The Hills Cider Company, Ashton Valley Fresh and Adelaide Hills Distillery. Other microbrewers and small-batch beverage companies can also have samples tested using a fee-for-service program.
“Eventually we want to expand the technology for the broader SA food industry, particularly dairy and smallgoods producers,” said Florian.
Sniffing out disease
A super-sensitive laser system dubbed an optical dog’s nose is being developed by IPAS scientists to 'sniff out' disease in a person’s breath. The optical frequency comb analyses breath molecules to detect evidence of disease before any external symptoms are showing.
“Breath analysis is a relatively new field with studies around the world demonstrating that diseases such as lung and oesophageal cancer, asthma and diabetes can be detected in this way,” said IPAS Director Professor Andre Luiten.
The technology being developed by IPAS sends up to a million different light frequencies through each molecule to reveal its unique molecular fingerprint.
“The system could lead to broadscale health screening because it can test for a range of molecules at once and offers almost instant results,” said Andre.
The team hopes to have a working prototype within two years and a commercial product by 2020. Andre thanked the SA Government for supporting the project through the Premier’s Research and Industry Fund.
Helping prove Einstein right
Scientists at IPAS have played a key role in proving the existence of gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of space-time first predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago. The technological triumph earlier this year is sweet success for Associate Professor Peter Veitch, the University’s Head of Physics, who has spent most of his working life trying to detect these elusive waves.
Peter was part of an IPAS team that provided support for the international LIGO Scientific Collaboration. IPAS researchers developed ultra-high precision optical sensors to correct the distortion of laser beams within the Advanced LIGO detectors. This enabled the high sensitivity needed to detect minute signals produced by the cataclysmic merger of two black holes more than one billion years ago.
“I’ve spent nearly 40 years working towards this detection which could lead to dramatic changes in our understanding of the universe and its evolution,” said Peter.
Scientists strike gold
Portable gold detection equipment 100 times more sensitive than existing technology has been developed by an IPAS research team.Using light in two different processes – fluorescence and light absorption – researchers have shown they can detect minute traces of gold in water at less than 100 parts per billion. The technology will allow exploration companies to test for gold on-site at the drilling rig with much greater accuracy and speed.
“The presence of gold deep underground is estimated by analysis of rock particles from exploration drill holes but when it’s in very low concentrations that’s extremely challenging,” said post-doctoral researcher Dr Agnieszka Zuber.
“Current portable methods for detection are not sensitive enough and the more sophisticated laboratory systems can take weeks to produce results.”
The easy-to-use IPAS sensor aims to deliver a result within an hour at much lower cost. The research is funded by the Deep Exploration Technologies Cooperative Research Centre and the technology is currently being tested on rock samples with promising results.
Story by Ian Williams