Ben Hall can show the world the chemistry inside anything.
Cement. A human bone. A wheel bug.
Hall’s company, Lasers for Innovative Solutions, puts objects in a whole new light.
The technology he uses — a combination of a picosecond laser, optics and fluorescent imaging — can take us through a journey we could only imagine by watching “The Magic School Bus” 20 years ago.
“This is our baby right here,” Hall said earlier this week with his hand on what looked like an ordinary metal box. “It’s our picosecond laser, in that it produces a trillionth of a second-long pulses that are millions of watts. When you pulse that down onto surfaces of any material it will vaporize it.”
A camera focused on the object being vaporized takes pictures, which pop up on a computer screen in ultraviolet colors. The images are made into a video of 2D and 3D models.
The first video he plays on his computer is of a grape bud.
Colors burst on the screen, ones that can’t be seen with the naked eye.
“It’s the size of a pencil eraser, and it would look brown to your eyes,” Hall said. “However, we’re using ultraviolet light, which is pretty far outside of what we can see. It brings out all these different colors, and it’s inducing autofluorescence which is making it glow based on its composition.”
Bright yellow clusters appear in the middle of the bud, an indication Hall said meant the bud would produce a high yield.
“This is actually what researchers are looking for,” he said. “They make huge amounts of wine in California, and these are grapes for next year and they want to be able to look at these and see what plants will offer the most productivity. We can search thousands of images for that color. We have a program that Brian (Reinhardt) writes to count these circles, and we’ll be able to say this one will have four times the yield as another one. That’s good for them, because they’ll know which plants to prune.”
Reinhardt and Hall founded the company, located on the second floor at 200 Innovation Blvd., in 2012.
Hall was first introduced to laser technology years ago in the Applied Research Lab at Penn State.
“Lasers ended up being freaking awesome, because you can do so many things with them,” he said. “It really opened up this world of different things to me, so I started playing around with this pulse laser that you can do really intricate things with. ... School wasn’t as stimulating. My energy, drive and motivation for school was waning very quickly, but I thought lasers were awesome. It’s an unavoidable, undeniable fact.”
Hall, who said he developed the technology with two Penn State professors, dropped out of school to start the business. Lasers for Innovative Solutions exclusively licenses the technology from Penn State, which patented it.
Reinhardt, a graduate student, writes programs after Hall vaporizes and images items.
“The other side of this is extracting information to measure the size of certain features, so I’m writing scripts to quantify features,” Reinhardt said. “The one I’m running right now is on wheat roots that we characterized for the University of Kentucky. We’ll go back to data to identify features in the plant structures, and then you can start to draw relationships between the volume of those structures and the performance of that plant in some kind of stressed environment.”
Finding who has a use for the technology is the tricky part.
Agriculturist researchers and corporations have shown the most demand.
“The way they’re doing stuff now is manual, very slow and very expensive,” Hall said. “They cut with a razor blade under a microscope in very fine sections and lay that section over if they cut it right, which it’s usually not. It’s crooked, crushed and torn, because it’s human error being introduced. Here, there’s no human error.”
But is there technological error?
A laser that produces millions of watts must distort the chemistry of other things.
“If you heat something up you’re burning it’s chemistry, but we want to see it how it is,” Hall said. “We’ve got to do it without burning it or heating it up, and that’s why we got this laser. We have another laser that has a longer pulse, so they’re billionths of a second instead of trillionths of a second. What that ends up meaning is with a longer pulse you allow the item to absorb some heat. ... we can do it with this laser without a problem.”
They hope their work leads to contracts with the biomedical industry.
“The biomedical industry represents the most lucrative possibility of all of these things, but also has the highest hurdles to get into with regulatory stuff, FDA stuff and approvals,” Hall said. “When the time comes I can show someone we can do human stuff, too, for research, for looking at the brain, for biopsies to find out what something is.”
“We basically have developed this technique for rapid 3D visualization of biological stuff,” he said. “There are no good solutions for that right now. They have X-rays, but X-rays are very slow, and they can’t look at tiny different nuances in tissue. This is all the same to them, so they have put in stain like iodine to look at your veins. It’s slow and expensive and black and white.”
They believe the technology will play a large role in how we look at the world — they’re just seeing it first.
“It matters for a huge host of reasons, a primary one being on a more philosophical nature that it’s helping us see nature in a way we’ve never seen it before,” Hall said.
“I think we both see it as something that will change how we see the world around us, or how we explore the world around us,” Reinhardt said. “It’s a new microscope in a sense and a new tool to understand the things happening around us.”