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 Energy Extremists. Story by Jim Muench.


The special lasers also could be used in surgery to make more precise incisions that heal more quickly and in dentistry, to drill away tooth decay without causing cracks in the tooth structure -- German scientists have already built the first prototype UUL for dentistry. To stay on pace with such developments, Tzou and Chen formed a UUL team composed of some 24 MU faculty, including researchers from medicine, chemistry and physics.

"We need to catch up," says Tzou. "And we don't want to just catch up; we want to jump ahead."

Tzou is particularly excited about the team's ability to develop medical applications, among them techniques for cutting bones so that they heal more quickly, creating shock waves to break up kidney stones, fashioning and implanting medicated stents, or injecting DNA into cells to fight disease. UULs may one day be configured to differentiate between cancerous and healthy cells in breast cancer patients, he says, so that another UUL could then surgically remove the offending cells with pinpoint accuracy.

Another fascinating possibility involves neural regeneration. When nerves such as those in the spinal cord are broken, Chen says, the reason they can't fuse back together is that damaged cells on each side of the break quickly die. The ultra-fast laser could cut off the dead cells quickly, so that live nerve cells could reconnect and restore proper functioning.

And there's more. Because it is a broader band, the ultra-fast laser stimulates a greater spectrum of light. This means the technology could also be employed as a sensor to detect industrial emissions in the atmosphere. There may also be military applications for the technology. The researchers declined to discuss specifics, but it doesn't take a great deal of imagination to envision a few.

Chen experienced the alarming power of UULs one day after pushing his hand a little too close to the beam. "With most lasers, you can see the light, but a UUL's wavelength may not be within the visible range," Chen says. "When you turn it on, you can't see it. I just pushed my hand that way and ... bee-oof ... it cut a hole right through... ."

"A very clean one," Tzou adds with a dry laugh.

But the researchers say the public shouldn't be distracted by visions of exotic weaponry. Far more compelling are the ways UULs will soon be saving lives, not taking them. "Because of the proven performance of UULs, a lot of wild ideas are born," Tzou admits. He quickly adds that the wild ideas are the stock in trade of good science.

"You said earlier you had to ask stupid questions," adds Chen. "They're not stupid. It's those stupid questions that lead to inspiration."

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Published by the Office of Research.

©2006 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.