Barry Schuler, the former head of AOL, is working in his new company on a revolutionary laser. The device is supposed to cut metal, destroy cancer cells or cure burns and all this without emitting excessive heat. The laser’s function can be easily changed by changing its software.
The new device is an ultrashort pulse (USP) laser, which is a laser that uses very short pulses of light. According to Schuler, within 10 years it will replace all kinds of blades: from powerful metal saws to precision surgical tools.
Work on the USP was started by DARPA (Defence Advance Research Project Agancy). Initially, the laser occupied an entire large room. Now the Raydiance company has miniaturized it so that it fits on a table.
Scientists have long known that USP lasers can do something unique: cut without emitting heat. Until now, however, they have been too large and complicated devices to be of practical use. Now they’re little bigger than a bread container, and scientists see new uses for them: destroying cancer cells, distinguishing enemy from ally during warfare, or removing tattoos.
Raydiance has already shipped a dozen of its lasers to scientists across the United States and promises to create 30 more USPs by the end of this year.
Raydiance is still a very small company – it employs only 30 people and has $25 million in funding provided by one of its investment funds – and it has stiff competition. Indeed, there are 25 companies working on USPs in the US alone. Most of them, however, focus on lasers for scientific applications. Raydiance has much more ambitious plans.
There are high hopes for USP lasers. Ron Waynant, an optician with the Federal Drug Administration, has been working with lasers almost since their inception in 1962. He says he’s not overly optimistic, but he also sees at least 100 different applications for USPs in medicine alone. Lasers of this type generate pulses counted in femtoseconds (one billiard part of a second). A short pulse will not destroy tissue that is supposed to remain intact, Waynant says. An added advantage is that precise cuts made with short pulses would heal very quickly.
The new laser would be particularly useful in treating burns. In patients with burns, it is necessary to cut out all of the damaged tissue. If anything remains, it will lead to the destruction of healthy tissue. Currently, the tissue destroyed by burns is cut out using surgical instruments. The procedure is very painful, so it often has to be done under complete anesthesia. And a patient with extensive burns cannot be operated on right away. You have to wait up to 72 hours for his condition to stabilize.
With the USP laser, surgery could be performed immediately, the entire procedure would be much less painful and most likely would not require general anesthesia.
The USP opens up a great many possibilities in various fields. So we can only wait until it becomes widespread, cheaper and as widely used as traditional lasers are today.