Laser Guided

Optics expert Audra Bullock has set her sights on cool ways to use lasers

January, 2004

Each day in the United States, 13 million diagnosed diabetics regularly check their sugar levels by drawing blood. Audra Bullock wants to replace the needle prick with a pulse of laser light. A professor in the electrical engineering department at the University of Hawaii, Bullock specializes in lasers and optics. Working with an undergraduate engineering major at the university, Bullock is building a laser-based instrument that could ascertain blood-sugar levels without piercing the skin.

The device shoots a laser pulse at a finger or the back of the ear. Every molecule hit by the laser produces a distinctive absorption signature indicating its type and concentration. A small detector attached to the device then gathers up the signature information from the finger or the ear and makes an accurate assessment of the concentration of sugar molecules in the bloodstream. Should Bullock’s system prove up to snuff in broad clinical trials, the invention could literally be worth tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars. “The search for this noninvasive monitor is like the search for the Holy Grail of the medical world,” says Bullock.

That’s just one of the many uses of lasers that Bullock is exploring with the 13 graduate and undergraduate students she currently employs on the Manoa campus. A winner of several prestigious engineering and general research awards, her project portfolio is enough to make any engineering geek drool. Aside from diabetes, Bullock is also working on a way to shoot lasers into the sky to detect levels of vog and other air pollutants on the Big Island. She also has several contracts to study and build optical sensing and detection equipment for the U.S. military in its ballistic missile defense program. There is also a contract from local technology company NovaSol to study optical communication system possibilities for military Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

Since arriving at the UH in August 2000, Bullock has pulled in just over $1 million in competitive research and teaching grants from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense, among others. More could be on the way, as the U.S. military continues to develop Hawaii sources for R&D and support to service the missile defense program located on Kauai at Barking Sands and other high-tech projects scattered around the Islands. Says Bullock, “There are many world-class researchers in the state of Hawaii. Many of them need to be here, because of the Pacific Missile Range Facility, the telescopes and the environment we have here. Some tests that can be run here, can’t go on anywhere else.”

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