Optics Benefits Humanity

Lasers and other optical technologies have brought tangible social, environmental, health, and economic gains to humanity. (With bonus, Web-only content)
01 July 2009

Photonics impacts nearly every area of life on the planet. Laser-based and infrared sensing technologies are improving auto safety and combating public health threats and international terrorism.

Optical innovations bring inexpensive and efficient alternative energy to rural and developing areas without access to electricity. And much of the world has come to depend on optical technologies for instant communications at home and in space, food inspections, personal and community security, and the growth of the entertainment industry.

Solar Cookers Help Refugee Women

The Solar Cooker Project (solarcookerproject.org) is protecting and empowering the women of war-torn Darfur by providing them with an alternative to firewood cooking in refugee camps in Chad. Virtually all females age 15 and older living in the camps have been trained to use solar cookers.

Solar Cooker Project in DarfurJewish World Watch, an organization that combats genocide through education, advocacy, and refugee relief, is the project's main sponsor in the refugee camps.

Recognizing that women and girls are particularly vulnerable to rape, murder, and other attacks while gathering firewood outside the camps, JWW began offering the solar cookers to women there to allow them to remain within the relative safety of the camps and reduce their dependency on wood.

The cookers consist of two simple black pots and plastic heat-retention bags surrounded by aluminum foil-covered cardboard which reflects the plentiful sun and converts it to heat energy.

The women use them to heat millet, vegetables, and sauces and to boil water. The cookers also provide income opportunities for the women who assemble the parts themselves, train other women to use them, and sew carrying bags to increase the cookers' life span, currently six to nine months.

More than 30,000 solar cookers have been manufactured and distributed in three Chad refugee camps where sunlight is present 330 days a year.

Each of the women in the camp receive two solar cookers and training. One solar cooker is used for sorghum, the main food distributed by the World Food Program while the other is used for water, sauce, or vegetables, if available.

Trained individuals provide follow-up assistance by helping the women keep their cookers in good working condition, which promotes the efficiency of the solar cooking process.

The solar cookers benefit the environment as well. They decrease the unhealthy smoke from the wood fires in the camps and save one ton of wood each year.

Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug, executive director of JWW, will speak about the Solar Cooker Project at a Women in Optics presentation at SPIE Optics+Photonics, 5 pm Monday 3, August.

Lasers Used As Mosquito "Missile" Against Malaria

An innovative and interdisciplinary use of a laser is also helping to stop the spread of malaria, which kills a child in Africa every 30 seconds.

Astrophysicists, including those involved in the so-called "Star Wars" anti-missile program during the Cold War between the United States and Russia, are collaborating with entomologists to develop a laser that could zap millions of disease-spreading mosquitoes in a matter of minutes.

The laser can be fired by hand from a flashlight-sized device to knock out a mosquito's sensors or mounted around a house or a village and programmed to shoot a mosquito's wings off when it detects the audio frequency of a female mosquito. (Only female mosquitoes feed on human blood and transmit the disease.) Scientists are refining their technology so that the laser would be strong enough to kill a malaria-carrying mosquito but not strong enough to harm humans and useful bugs.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Nathan Myhrvold, a former Microsoft executive who now runs Intellectual Ventures LLC, have invested in the research to combat malaria. There are some 300 million acute cases of malaria across the globe each year, resulting in more than a million deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

Scientists working on the mosquito laser include Lowell Wood, Szabolcs Márka, and SPIE member Jordin T. Kare who told CNN that the laser would be able to sweep an area and "toast millions of mosquitoes in a few minutes."

Auto Safety Improved With Optical Technologies

Optical technology is also contributing to increased auto safety, with cameras and sensors that can warn of nearby cars, pedestrians, animals, and other objects that could pose a hazard.

Volvo's new XC60 crossover utility vehicle has a laser mounted behind the rear-view mirror that monitors the area in front of a vehicle and automatically stops the car if it senses an imminent impact with another vehicle.

Volvo's system is designed for low-speed situations, below 30 km/h, and cannot detect pedestrians or bicyclists.

A new BMW safety system can detect pedestrians and animals, however, with night vision technology. An IR sensor developed by Autoliv can be mounted on the grille of the BMW 7-Series and scan the road ahead—more than twice as far as the headlights can reach—for pedestrians. If a person approaches or an obstacle crosses the car's path, the driver receives a warning from the in-dash monitor.

Several automakers offer sideview cameras to help drivers parallel park and to see around corners at intersections. Radar sensors can also warn of potential dangers from behind. Several models of BMWs have safety innovations such as the Active Blind Spot Detection that give visual warnings and vibrate the steering wheel to warn a driver not to change lanes when another vehicle is in its blindspot. Ford and Chrysler have also added blindspot warning systems that use radar sensors on the rear bumper.

Chrysler's Cross Path Detection System uses rear bumper radar sensors and sounds an alarm when a vehicle is approaching from behind. Visual indicators also flash in the side mirrors to warn the driver and indicate from which side a vehicle is approaching.

Infiniti offers an Around View Monitor as an option. It uses four wide-angle cameras, one on each side, to provide a 360-degree view around the vehicle and project images from the camera on monitor on the dashboard. Drivers can select several camera images to display, including a "bird's-eye" view for an overhead perspective.

Light Up The World

Dave Irvine-Halliday of the Light Up the World FoundationSomeone once asked Light Up the World Foundation co-founder Dave Irvine-Halliday why he began bringing unproven LED lighting to developing countries before the solid-state lighting industry had matured in the developed world first.

"Haven't the poor waited long enough?" he answered. "Why can't we trickle up and trickle down?"

Irvine-Halliday says thousands of poor people in Africa, Afghanistan, Peru, and elsewhere are the grateful recipients of inventions and innovations by optical engineers. LUTW is one of a growing number of humanitarian organizations that bring affordable, safe, healthy, and environmentally responsible illumination to people who do not have access to adequate lighting.

"Lighting is so fundamental to human development," he says.

LUTW has lit up more than 17,000 homes in more than 50 countries throughout the developing world, from Afghanistan to Zambia.

Irvine-Halliday, a professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Calgary, came up with the idea to bring LED lighting to the developing world in 1997 while on sabbatical in Nepal where he was helping the Institute of Engineering, University of Tribhuvan, Kathmandu develop its electrical engineering degree program.

While trekking the Annapurna Circuit. he visited local villages and was struck by the poor conditions of the people. Most of them were relying on kerosene lamps which produced little light and filled the homes with dangerous smoke.

As the annual income of the Nepalese villagers averaged $200 USD, he realized that there was a great need for simple, safe, healthy, affordable and rugged lighting.

Irvine-Halliday, who had been working with LEDs for more than two decades, spent most of 1997 and 1998 trying to make an acceptable white light from various combinations of colored indicator LEDs. He made white light but it was not bright enough to be of any practical use in the developing world.

Near the end of 1998, he discovered that Nichia, a Japanese company, had invented the white LED a few years earlier and he immediately requested that they send him samples. When he and his technician, John Shelley, lit their very first white LED, it was most a "Eureka" moment.

"Good God, John, a child could read by the light of a single diode," he said.

In 1999 Irvine-Halliday and his wife Jenny tested their prototype WLED lamps in a number of Nepali villages and the response from the villagers was so positive that they knew what they would be doing with the rest of their lives.  (Source: LUTW.org)

Watch a video interview about the LUTW project and listen to the podcast on the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) in the SPIE Newsroom.

Do you have a story to tell about how optics benefits humanity? Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.

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