Toward the Realization of a Compact Chemical Sensor Platform using Quantum Cascade Lasers

Report No. ARL-RP-0550
Authors: Ellen L. Holthoff, Logan S. Marcus, and Paul M. Pellegrino
Date/Pages: September 2015; 18 pages

The Army is investigating several spectroscopic techniques (e.g., infrared spectroscopy) that could allow for an adaptable sensor platform. Traditionally, chemical sensing platforms have been hampered by the opposing concerns of increasing sensor capability while maintaining a minimal package size. Current sensors, although reasonably sized, are geared to more classical chemical threats, and the ability to expand their capabilities to a broader range of emerging threats is uncertain. Recently, photoacoustic spectroscopy, employed in a sensor format, has shown enormous potential to address these ever-changing threats, while maintaining a compact sensor design.

In order to realize the advantage of photoacoustic sensor miniaturization, light sources of comparable size are required. Recent research has employed quantum cascade lasers (QCLs) in combination with MEMS-scale photoacoustic cell designs. The continuous tuning capability of QCLs over a broad wavelength range in the mid-infrared spectral region greatly expands the number of compounds that can be identified. Results have demonstrated that utilizing a tunable QCL with a MEMS-scale photoacoustic cell produces favorable detection limits (ppb levels) for chemical targets (e.g., dimethyl methyl phosphonate (DMMP), vinyl acetate, 1,4-dioxane). Although our chemical sensing research has benefitted from the broad tuning capabilities of QCLs, the limitations of these sources must be considered. Current commercially available tunable systems are still expensive and obviously geared more toward laboratory operation, not fielding. Although the laser element itself is quite small, the packaging, power supply, and controller remain logistical burdens. Additionally, operational features such as continuous wave (CW) modulation and laser output powers while maintaining wide tunability are not yet ideal for a variety of sensing applications. In this paper, we will discuss our continuing evaluation of QCL technology as it matures in relation to our ultimate goal of a universal compact chemical sensor platform.

Distribution: Approved for public release
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Last Update / Reviewed: September 1, 2015