SAN ANGELO, Texas -- For residents of Turkey and Japan, San Francisco and Mexico City, an early warning system for earthquakes could mean saving tens of thousands of lives.
For new parents, a noninvasive way to test their infant for congenital lactose intolerance could save weeks of heartache.
For a patient undergoing brain surgery to remove a cancerous tumor, it could make all the difference if the surgeon had an immediate way to find out if the whole tumor has been removed.
Manfred Fink, a professor at the University of Texas Department of Physics since 1968, said he and his team have invented a single device that can do all that and more.
"Anticipated applications are mind-boggling," Fink said.
The device, formally known as an Analytic Non-Dispersive Raman Spectrometer, or ANDRaS for short, brought attention from "all over" after UT's College of Natural Sciences published an article called "The Little Black Box That Could."
"We're teaching physics. We're not used to that," said Fink, a Germany native. The development of ANDRaS is a story rooted in the kind of sheer luck and persistence found throughout the history of science.
Fink and his colleagues, Philip Varghese, a UT aerospace engineering professor, and Jacek Borysow, a physics professor at Michigan Technological University, were looking for a way to analyze the content of smoke from industrial smokestacks.
"There was no machine to measure smoke coming out of smokestacks," Fink said. "There was a law but no machine to measure it. We asked for $50,000 to develop this machine."
But they started with a machine that costs $500,000, known as the Raman Spectrometer, a device, Fink said, that was invented in the 1920s by a physicist from India, C.V. Raman.
He said Raman was traveling by ship back from Britain when a little girl standing beside him said to Raman, "You look like a smart man. Why is the water blue?"
To answer the question Raman developed the Raman Spectrometer, which measures the activity of molecules "excited" by light, Fink said.
"He found out the water is blue because the light is scattered on there. The direct light disappears and only the blue is left. Same as for the sky," Fink said.
The early spectrometers relied on sunlight but the invention of the laser increased the capacity to analyze molecules.
"Lasers are the best light source in the world," Fink said. "A $500,000 Raman Spectrometer will tell you everything about molecules. Every molecule will have the fingerprint of its personality."
But what if you only want to measure one thing?
That is what the ANDRaS device does.
"Each machine is only good for one compound," Fink said. "The moment I know what I want to know, I can build the machine relatively cheaply."
One use being developed as part of a five-year project is to create an early warning system for earthquakes. Thirty or more minutes before an earthquake, the rocks involved give off a particular gas.
ANDRaS devices are going into four places in deep water near earthquake-prone faults to test water for the presence of that gas.
With a 30-minute warning, schools, hospitals, office buildings could be emptied, saving countless lives of people trapped in collapsed buildings.
Lactose intolerance prevents a person from properly digesting milk, including breast milk. A simple additive to a little milk could be given to an infant, then the baby's breath could be tested for evidence of the additive, which would indicate whether the milk was properly digested or not.
Instead of waiting to see if a baby is thriving, parents could be sure in minutes if they need to adjust what they feed their baby.
"What doctors like best with this technology is they can follow the recovery process," Fink said. "What we hope is when this becomes popular, we can use this technology to follow the healing process for treatment of such diseases as cancer, see what works, what doesn't. Our technique could constantly tell the surgeon as he is operating if he got all the tumor.
"Quick, cheap. That's the pie in the sky."
(Contact Laurel L. Scott of the Standard Times in San Angelo, Texas, at www.gosananelo.com.)