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PASTA: Making Optical Observations a Million Times Faster

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Optical spectroscopy is an important imaging technology that is used in a wide range of fields in science, medicine and engineering.

However, measuring spectral observations reached a limit as conventional optical analyzers are unable to operate at ultra-high speeds. This means they struggle to provide real-time microscopic and spectroscopic images and video, needed for accurate and stable imaging in for example clinical and pathological diagnosis.  

But a breakthrough in photonics - the manipulation of photons - led to the development by a team at the University of Hong Kong of the parametric spectro-temporal analyzer, or PASTA, technology that allows images to be captured up to a million times faster than previously.

Dr Kenneth Wong, an Associate Professor at the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at HKU, is now developing a PASTA machine to capture spectral information in an “ultra-fast” manner.

He is working with a colleague, Dr Nikki Lee, at HKU’s Department of Surgery, to allow the device to monitor living cancer cells and for surgeons to see operations in real time, and at microscopic and spectroscopic levels.

Dr Wong has been able to adapt different technologies like fibre optics and lasers to overcome some of the speed hurdles. And for the development of faster fibre optics, which should allow for even better results, he is collaborating with researchers in the Laboratoire de Physique des Lasers, Atomes and Molecules at the University of Lille I in France.

While the PASTA technology is still in its infancy, Dr Wong sees multiple potential uses from working with so-called ‘soft robots’ to optimizing internal combustion engine efficiency.

“Right now it’s only the image or the spectrum, but we believe we can collect many other kinds of information in an ultra-fast manner,” Dr Wong said.

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