Local company helps develop laser to kill mosquitoes

March 17, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
A Bay Area company is supplying technology that could help protect millions of people against an enemy that attacks from the air and spreads a deadly disease. It's a device that could be powered by a small solar panel.

In just a fraction of second, a mosquito can be blasted out of the sky. And even in super slow motion, the speed of the kill is like something out of a video game. Technically speaking, that's not far off the mark.

Dan Vivoli is senior vice president with Santa Clara-based Nvidia. The company makes graphics processing units that power the intense 3D animation in today's video games, but he says the chips, known as GPU's now do much more.

"It's evolved into a parallel processer that's used in a variety of applications where you have to interpret information or simulate information or synthesize information," said Vivoli.

Those applications are used in everything from 3D imaging for hospitals to facial recognition for Homeland Security. And now a research company called Intellectual Ventures, funded in part by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, also turned to the GPU, to help power a laser beam system to kill mosquitoes.

"You have to recognize that it's a mosquito, versus all of the other bugs that might be flying around, recognize that it's a female mosquito, and then shoot it down. That recognition of trying to find that mosquito while it's flying around is done on the GPU," said Vivoli.

The result was a so-called laser fence, designed to protect homes or possibly entire villages from mosquitoes. If "Star Wars"-like technology seems like overkill, consider that the real enemy is malaria.

"Their trying to get rid of it completely," said Sir Richard Feachem.

Feachem is the director of global health sciences at UCSF and involved in the world wide war on malaria. While he doesn't have direct knowledge of the laser device, he says malaria is still taking a staggering toll.

"Malaria is killing 1 million people every year and most are children and most of them live in Africa," said Feachem.

Current strategies using pesticides and specialized bed nets have helped control malaria in many areas, but it is still present in 99 countries.

While even the inventors admit the laser system wouldn't be a complete solution, they're currently working to make it cheaper and easier to deploy in the third world. Ultimately they hope to partner with a company willing to mass produce the technology for use worldwide, taking the make believe violence of the gaming world to a real-world enemy.

Intellectual Ventures believes early versions of the mosquito fence could be mass produced and sold for as little as $50.


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