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'Smart scalpel' detects cancer cells in seconds

The Sandia biocavity laser, based in part on semiconductor fabrication techniques, at an estimated cost from $10,000 to $50,000 is also far cheaper to build than a $100,000 (or more expensive) flow cytometry machine that may be desktop or benchtop size. The portable laser device has the potential to provide real-time analysis of up to 100,000 cells per second - a rate five times faster than other methods. It does not require - as do typical bench-top cytometers - a small room, highly trained operators, and a large laser.

DOE's Office of Basic Energy Sciences and Sandia's Laboratory-Directed Research and Development office, which supports discovery-oriented research, fund the materials research underlying this work.

Original disbelief

The device is an outgrowth of more than two decades of work at Sandia on compound semiconductor materials and microcavity laser structures. It could be said to have its roots 14 years ago when Sandia researchers succeeded - against much disbelief in the scientific community - in joining nanometer-thick layers of crystalline materials together to form a vertical cavity laser in the form of a single lattice. This achievement had been thought impossible, since the ultrashort dimensions of the laser's active medium were not thought to permit laser operation. However, the sandwiching materials were so highly reflective that the device worked.

Achievement of these crystalline structures made it possible to routinely create tiny, very efficient lasers out of semiconductors in which nanometer-thick layers of gallium aluminum arsenide are sandwiched between nanometer-thick layers of gallium arsenide. Energizing the middle layer makes it emit photons, as would a crystal. The layers below and above it act as mirrors, reflecting emitted photons back and forth through the emitting material and amplifying the output in the classical process of a laser, though it all happens within horizontal spaces measured in nanometers.

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Contact: Neal Singer
nsinger@sandia.gov
505-845-7078
DOE/Sandia National Laboratories
22-Mar-2000


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