Renaissance in light

“We are in a renaissance in light source technology,” stated Dr. Chris Barty, who joined UCI and the BLIMC as professor of Physics and Astronomy in July. And “Renaissance Man,” is one way to describe Barty.

With Ph.D. and M.S. degrees in applied physics from Stanford University and B.S. degrees, each with honors, in chemistry, physics, and chemical engineering from North Carolina State University, Barty joined UCI after serving as the chief technology officer for the National Ignition Facility (NIF) and Photon Science Directorate. Prior to that he was the founder and director of the mission-based Photon Science and Applications program at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).

At LLNL, Barty helped manage and guide the technical evolution of the world’s highest-energy and largest laser within the NIF – a laser the size of a football stadium. He also played key roles in the development of ultrahigh intensity laser science, laser inertial fusion energy and laser defense activities at LLNL. For more than a decade, Barty has also pioneered laser-Compton technology, an extremely bright, x-ray and gamma-ray light source that can be created with short-pulse lasers and energetic electron beams. In the gamma-ray spectral region, the peak brightness of a laser-Compton light source pulse can be 15 orders of magnitude beyond any other man-made light, making it possible to access and manipulate the nucleus of an atom with photons, an emerging field known as “nuclear photonics.” These highly mono-energetic gamma-ray sources produce narrow, laser-like beams of incoherent gamma rays that can penetrate through lead and other thick containers and can be tuned to a specific energy so they predominately interact with only one kind of material.

“In the early days of lasers, the controlled manipulation of the outermost electron structure of the atom became possible, leading to a wide variety of new applications and science that now impacts many, many aspects of our daily lives,” stated Barty. “Similarly, laser-Compton gamma-ray sources are now enabling ‘nuclear photonics,’ or the photon-based manipulation of proton motion within the nucleus, and thus are leading to new applications and science including the isotope-specific detection of materials for security and advanced medical imaging, and enable novel forms of discovery-class, nuclear spectroscopy.” Since Barty first coined the term “nuclear photonics” in 2008, the related international community has grown rapidly and now includes more than $500 million of activities and a major biennial conference by the same name.

“[At LLNL] We constructed a proof-of-principle laser-Compton machine and used its photons to detect the presence of lithium concealed behind aluminum and lead,” shared Barty. “The machine created a record peak brilliance. It used an existing linear accelerator and custom laser systems designed specifically for laser-based Compton scattering x-ray and gamma-ray sources.”

Barty’s patented laser-Compton technology is now being transferred to industry, and is the foundation behind a new company, Lumitron Technology, Inc., which he helped launch and which will be headquartered in the University Research Park adjacent to campus. As the lead hire in the Convergence Optical Sciences Initiative (COSI), he will concentrate his efforts on building the world’s highest output, tunable, mono-energetic, compact, x-ray light source based on laser-Compton scattering. “My focus will not only be to establish laser-Compton systems as the ‘gold standard’ for imaging and therapy, but also to target a broad ecosystem of new science and technology across a range of industrial, commercial and healthcare applications.”

“When I look here [at UCI], I see the grand vision. BLIMC completely gets the story where academic and industrial activities are encouraged which doesn’t happen everywhere,” stated Barty.

“We are pushing the frontier of basic science and engineering. Laser-Compton technology will enable the location, study and treatment of disease in ways not previously possible. We have a tremendous opportunity to change healthcare and make a real impact on medicine. The unique x-ray capabilities of compact, laser-Compton sources will also play a pivotal role in materials science, micro-fabrication, and the rapid emergence of additive manufacturing.”

Imaging Innovator

Modulated Imaging, Inc. (MI, Inc.) received clearance from the Federal Drug Association (FDA) for its Ox-Imager CS system. This is the first technology developed by a company founded in the Photonic Incubator of the Beckman Laser Institute and Medical Clinic (BLIMC) to be cleared by the FDA. According to UCI alum Dr. David Cuccia, MI, Inc. CEO/CTO, this device is expected to assist clinicians with the identification of lower limb vascular issues, leading to patients receiving more appropriate and timely treatment. With FDA clearance MI, Inc. is now in the process of launching the system at clinics throughout the country.

“This FDA clearance is a major milestone for our company and for the patients and physicians within the vascular treatment communities,” said Cuccia. “Ox-Imager can lead to significant preventive care actions, as well as an estimated potential $6.2 billion in savings per year. We’re proud to be able to provide meaningful information that advances patients’ health and wellness.”

CEO at age twenty-two

At age 22, Austin Russell, a former BLIMC high-school independent researcher, launched Luminar Technologies, Inc. The company recently announced that it is partnering with the Toyota Research Institute to advance self-driving car technology. Russell, CEO of Luminar Technologies Inc., developed an advanced laser lidar sensor system that detects a car’s surroundings in high-definition 3D, paving the way for self-driving cars to “actually work and be safe.”

For Russell, being a pioneer meant having the patience to build a better lidar system that would not only advance the industry, but do it in a field that could save people’s lives. “We’re able to see seven seconds out instead of one second,” Russell shared with Business Insider, “That’s a really big breakthrough.”

Russell, a gifted student, memorized the periodic table by age four and transformed a Nintendo gaming headset into a cell phone by the sixth grade. He first conceptualized and designed augmented reality and wireless power transmission projects during his last two years of high school, working as an independent researcher in the Tromberg lab at the BLIMC.

“Our plan is to power every autonomous vehicle that’s produced and make them so they can truly be safe and autonomous,” Russell said of his future vision. As he stated on Bloomberg.com, “You would push yourself to the limit at least ultimately. That’s what you have to do if you want to make an impact on the world.”

Article adapted from, “Toyota is trusting a startup for a crucial part of its newest self-driving cars” by Johana Bhuiyan on Recode.com; “Meet the 22-year-old college dropout who wants to power every future self-driving car,” by Biz Carson in Business Insider and, “The 22-year-old at the center of the self-driving car craze,” by Alex Webb, Lizette Chapman and Alex Barinka on Bloomberg.com.

Treating those in need

Revolutionary portable screening device helps detect oral cancer

Worldwide, oral cancer is the sixth-most common cancer-related cause of death, killing almost a quarter-million people each year. In low-income nations such as India, which has the world’s highest rate of oral cancer, the situation is more imperative, primarily due to limited awareness and limited access to specialized care for the underserved. In some parts of India, the disease kills more people than any other ailment. However, survival rates greatly rise if oral cancer is quickly diagnosed.

To increase early detection, BLIMC professor Dr. Petra Wilder-Smith has partnered with the Mazumdar Shaw Cancer Center in Bangalore, India, to conduct a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded study to develop and test a low-cost, portable screening device that field-workers can use to screen for oral cancer. The technology is enabling those who are rarely treated by a dentist to receive timely diagnoses and care, significantly improving their health.

Wilder-Smith developed the technology after she witnessed that at-risk patients who lived in remote villages did not have the funds or resources to travel great distances to the Cancer Center for monitoring. Also, she realized that patients avoided care because they found the biopsies – the standard practice at the time – to be too painful. These patients would often times go undiagnosed or seek treatment after it was too late. Taking these factors into consideration, Wilder-Smith designed a new pain-free, portable technology for use in remote areas. This device creates detailed laser images of oral lesions that can easily be sent by cell phone to the Cancer Center for evaluation.

“Petra is widely recognized for her visionary leadership in the pioneering use of optics and photonics technologies for improving oral health,” noted Dr. Bruce Tromberg, BLIMC director. “She has a special combination of abilities as a compassionate clinician with a unique understanding of patient needs, particularly in medically underserved communities.”

Over the past year, UCI teams have traveled to India with a prototype device to test on patients. They screened more than 12,000 people, identifying 1,200 with or at high risk of imminently developing oral cancer.

Wilder-Smith says these efforts are promising, and her team is gearing up for a larger campaign to help those across the nation. “We’re in conversations with several foundations and government groups to explore ways of expanding this program quickly – with the goal of saving thousands of lives,” she says.

Article adapted from, “Better screening of oral cancer in India,” featured in UCI Magazine and “Better than biopsies,” featured on UCI News. Both articles written by Tom Vasich.

Dr. Petra Wilder-Smith

In 1992, Dr. Petra Wilder-Smith joined the faculty of the Beckman Laser Institute and Medical Clinic (BLIMC), where she currently serves as dental director. Over the past two decades, she and BLIMC professor Dr. Zhongping Chen have created innovative methods based on optical coherence tomography (OCT) technology to detect and monitor oral cancer. OCT is unique because it allows high resolution imaging of tissue structure and blood flow beneath the surface where cancer starts. This can all be done non-invasively without having to perform a tissue biopsy.

Read full article in UCI Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic’s LASER magazine.