Portsmouth mega laser is only one of its kind in UK and Europe

The periodic table

The highly specialised instrument can rapidly analyse the chemical composition of materials.

  • 08 December 2021
  • 4 min read

A new one-of-a-kind mega laser which can rapidly analyse the chemical composition of metals, plastics, biological materials - and even dust - has been delivered to Portsmouth.

The femtosecond laser ablation (LA) and laser induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) system – installed at the University of Portsmouth last month - brings together several newly developed technologies.

It is the only one of its kind at any university in the UK or Europe, and among many other uses, might hold the key to finally understanding how microplastics may harm human health. 

It works by blasting samples with a powerful laser pulse, which creates a high-temperature plasma. This plasma can then be examined to determine the chemical elements.

 
Professor Craig Storey and Dr James Darling working with the mega laser

Professor Craig Storey and Dr James Darling at work in the laser ablation laboratory

The highly specialised instrument was delivered to the University’s School of the Environment, Geography and Geosciences thanks to £950,000 funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

Professor of Geology, Craig Storey, led the team who won the funding. He said: “This laser produces incredibly short pulses of energy, a million times shorter than most commercially available lasers, but what’s most impressive is that it can analyse the composition of samples by removing minimal amounts of material.

“Previously, if you used laser ablation technology to analyse a sample of plastic, it would melt and destroy it. This laser can now look at the potentially toxic elements in plastics right through from the surface to the interior.”

It can also accurately analyse very small fragments of materials such as microplastics and dust.

 

This laser produces incredibly short pulses of energy, a million times shorter than most commercially available lasers, but what’s most impressive is that it can analyse the composition of samples by removing minimal amounts of material.

Craig Storey, Professor of Geology

Professor Storey said: “Research by my colleagues at Portsmouth has found that we’re surrounded by microplastics in our homes and in the environment, but we don’t yet know how the potential toxicity of these materials might affect our health. 

“This laser can reveal any toxic elements of microplastics so we can better understand their impact on us.” 

Its use isn’t limited to plastics though, the laser will also be used for a wide-range of research. Planned projects include the engineering and recycling of Li-ion batteries, the impact of environmental conditions on marine organisms, how the Earth and other planets have evolved through time, the history of historical artefacts and how to preserve them, and even the analysis of trace evidence from crime scenes.

The integrated femtosecond laser ablation and laser induced breakdown spectroscopy system is open for use by the UK scientific community. To find out more please contact: craig.storey@port.ac.uk