Manhattan A year ago, as Americans faced the anthrax scare, many were frightened senseless because they feared that spilled sugar or dust bunnies might be the deadly spores.
If only there could have been some way to easily detect anthrax, something along the lines of a smoke detector small, reliable and capable of giving ample warning of pending doom.
Some fantasy from the pages of a sci-fi novel?
Not really, say Hongxing Jiang and Jingyu Lin, two Kansas State University physicists working on such an idea along with scores of other researchers around the country.
But don't start looking for anthrax detectors on the store shelves anytime soon.
"This is very difficult research. There are a lot of technical issues to be resolved," Lin said.
Jiang nodded in agreement and replied, "We know what we want, but it will take time. We are trying to get it better and better."
Besides, he adds, once they have completed their part of the research, it will have to be integrated with other research to come up with a portable anthrax detector.
But Ron Trewyn, the university's vice provost for research, has little doubt that Jiang and Lin will succeed.
"They are truly stars in their areas. They are clearly out there in the forefront," he said. "Designing the light source is right down their alley."
Jiang and Lin have been at KSU more than a decade and are experts in designing light emitting diodes, or LEDs, and laser diodes, both of which are sources of light that can be as small as a human hair.
"That's our expertise. We make things very small too small to see with the naked eye without a light source," Lin said.
Kansas State this summer received a $1.4 million government grant over four years to develop semiconductor ultraviolet light sources, which Jiang said is a key part of any anthrax detector.
A semiconductor ultraviolet light source can detect substances when the light is shone on them. Any bioagent excited by ultraviolet light creates a unique color spectrum, or fluorescence.
The university's research is part of a consortium founded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the central research and development organization for the Pentagon.
Other universities include Brown, California-Santa Barbara, Cornell, Georgia Tech, South Carolina, Texas-Austin and Yale, plus government laboratories and private industries.
Jiang and Lin are trying to come up with the needed ultraviolet light source small enough to be portable and bright enough to be effective.
"It is a critical component," Lin said. "Without it, you have nothing to see. You need to use an ultraviolet source for this."
They already have the ultraviolet LEDs, but there's a hitch they aren't bright enough.
"If the light source is brighter, the detection of anthrax particles will be easier." Lin said. "Otherwise it will not work."