Photo: PlaneMad/Wikipedia, CC
Not Quite the Original Star Wars...Malaria is a huge problem. About 1 million dead a year, and countless others who suffer. Bill Gates was quite eloquent about it at the TED conference this year (he actually released mosquitoes in the audience). There are many ways to fight it - finding drugs, inexpensive bed nets, insecticides, etc - but this is the first that I hear of shooting down mosquitoes with lasers.
The Future is Here
The anti-mosquito laser was originally introduced by astrophysicist Lowell Wood in the early 1980s, but the idea never took off. More recently, former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold revived the laser idea when Bill Gates asked him to explore new ways of combating malaria.
Now, astrophysicist Jordin Kare from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Wood, Myhrvold, and other experts have developed a handheld laser that can locate individual mosquitoes and kill them one by one. The developers hope that the technology might be used to create a laser barrier around a house or village that could kill or blind the insects. Alternatively, flying drones equipped with anti-mosquito lasers could track the insects with radar and then sweep the sky with the laser.
The strength of the laser is being tuned so that only mosquitoes are harmed by it; not other insects, and especially not people. The device could even be tuned to only attack female mosquitoes, the only ones that transmit the malaria the parasite. How do they know which ones are male and females? No, there isn't a small telescope in there. They can tell from the frequency of wing movements.
How Green is It?But how green would such a technology be? I think to find that out we would need to compare it to the alternatives, not only in ecological impact, but also in effectiveness at reducing death and suffering. It's probably more expensive and uses more energy than bed nets, but if it works well, it would also probably be more effective. Compared to a miracle drug that would 100% cure or prevent malaria, this might not look so good, but compared to spraying vast areas with insecticides that kill insects indiscriminately and make their way up the food chain, targeted lasers would probably be much better (they would act only locally, and the dead mosquitoes aren't poisonous).
It seems like a pretty green way to protect people from a terrible disease while we're waiting for a miracle drug or vaccine. The main question that remains is: How much power would that device use? Could it run on batteries charged during the day with solar panels? In many poor countries, the electrical grid is almost non-existent, so to really protect people this device would need to work off-grid on low-power.
Time will tell if such a technology will ever become practical enough to be deployed in the wild...
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