Ben Franklin


NanoLambda: Making Affordable, High-Resolution Spectrometers for Everyday Life

High-definition big-screen TVs have taken the consumer electronics world by storm, but high-def at the nanoscale is poised to revolutionize far more than just television-including wearable devices such as noninvasive glucose monitors for health care or biochemical sensors for the defense industry.


NanoLambda is developing an ultra-compact, inexpensive, high-resolution spectrometer on a chip. The technology will open up a new arena of everyday-life optical sensing applications—including wearable devices such as noninvasive glucose monitors for health care or biochemical sensors for the defense industry.

“We are developing an ultra-compact, inexpensive, high-resolution spectrometer on a chip,” says Bill Choi, CEO of Pittsburgh-based NanoLambda. “This technology will open up a new arena of everyday-life optical sensing applications, a market whose potential until now has been limited by bulky and expensive conventional methods and devices.”

NanoLambda’s Spectrum Sensor chip builds upon leading-edge plasmonics technology to produce, for the first time, a nanoscale spectrum analyzer on an integrated circuit at a fraction of the size and cost of current bench-top systems. Each pixel of the chip detects a predefined wavelength of light from an input source, yielding a spectral fingerprint that can precisely identify materials being monitored.

From Theory to Commercialization

Sometimes called “light on a wire,” plasmonics combines the strongest points of both optical and electronic data transfer. The technology allows data to be transmitted at fast optical frequencies along the surface of a nanoscale metal wire rather than a bulky fiber optics cable.

But small size itself is not enough for commercialization. The product must be mass-producible at low cost. Choi says NanoLambda’s proprietary manufacturing process is the key.

“Because we’re using standard wafer processes to fabricate the metallic nanostructures, the cost will be very affordable even for consumer mobile devices,” he says. “Our goal is to make the technology available wherever it’s needed.” The company, a spinout from the labs of the University of Pittsburgh, expects to complete prototype development later this year.

Support When It’s Needed Most

Choi realizes that moving a technology from university lab to marketplace can be a complicated and laborious process. He credits Ben Franklin Technology Partners (BFTP), which awarded NanoLambda a $17,000 University Innovation Grant, with providing a helping hand and opening key networking doors.

“The grant was very timely money,” Choi says. “We used it to validate and confirm the market potential by visiting and interacting with actual market and potential customers.” The grant was also used to validate the intellectual property-a major hurdle that all early-stage companies must clear before getting serious attention from potential investors.

BFTP saw big potential in NanoLambda’s nanoscale innovation and committed to a $300,000 investment to help keep prototype development moving along. “In addition to the funding, our discussions and reviews with BFTP have prevented potentially critical mistakes,” says Choi. “And they have improved our readiness to approach outside investors.”

A Wealth of Practical Applications One of the most promising applications of NanoLambda’s technology is in health care. “Imagine a point-of-care health service-a wearable monitor-for diabetics that can always be on,” Choi says. “A device like that would result in overall cost reduction for health care and would improve the quality of life for patients who won’t have to regularly prick themselves for blood samples.”

NanoLamba’s Spectrum Sensor can also detect toxic gases and hazardous materials, providing an important home security and defense application. “A soldier can wear a device that recognizes toxic biochemical materials without direct contact,” Choi says. Devices to monitor air quality could be developed for a variety of environments, including in schools, houses, factories, automobiles and so on.

High-resolution color-sensing from video displays to printers is another application for NanoLambda’s technology that has excellent market potential. Digital pictures often appear very different on a screen compared to when they are printed out. Also, at consumer electronics stores like Best Buy, with walls full of large-screen displays, colors vary even when they all display the same image.

Users concerned about color quality on video screens must calibrate the colors occasionally. “This is the primary problem in the digital color world,” says Choi. “Truly accurate calibration requires the use of expensive external spectrometer equipment. Soon, device manufacturers will be able to embed our Spectrum Sensor right inside the products and achieve excellent color quality not only for high-end products, but also for low-end products.”

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This article was featured in
Keynotes April, 2007
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