The current detection uses spectroscopic chemical sensing, which measures the frequency of light absorbed or scattered from a substance to determine its molecular identity. According to DARPA, the current technology lacks the sensitivity and broad spectral coverage needed to detect deadly chemicals in military environments.
The Spectral Combs from UV to THz (SCOUT) program intends to produce sensors that can detect these agents in either liquid or gaseous form. SCOUT will use optical frequency comb (OFC) technology, which, according to DARPA, is similar to “using thousands of lasers simultaneously (like extremely fine teeth on a hair comb) to enable both high sensitivity and wide spectral coverage for detecting multiple types of substances at extended distances.”
In the lab, DARPA has seen proof. According to program manager Prem Kumar,
[It’s] possible to identify and quantify multiple substances at a distance of 2 kilometers or more, but no portable sensors exist today that can detect and distinguish among multiple chemical or biological agents in gas or liquid form at even half that distance. The challenge DARPA is addressing is to develop portable, microchip-size optical frequency combs that display a high degree of sensitivity and specificity across the electromagnetic spectrum, even in a cluttered frequency environment.
DARPA is focusing the abilities for detection on four spectral regions: Ultraviolet to visible, which is useful for biological threat detection and real-time monitoring of chemical reactions; mid-wave infrared that can be used for breath analysis applications; long-wave infrared for detecting explosives; and submillimeter/terahertz for detecting complex molecules.
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