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Syracuse University researcher's NSF award to fund new exhibit at the MOST

July 10, 2009

Judy Holmes
(315) 443-2201

A Syracuse University scientist will use funding from his prestigious National Science Foundation Early Career Development (CAREER) Award to build a new, interactive exhibit at the Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science and Technology (MOST) in Syracuse. The exhibit will feature natural phenomena occurring on timescales shorter than one second.

researchTimothy Korter, assistant professor of chemistry in SU's College of Arts and Sciences, was awarded a five-year $640,148 CAREER Award to both create the exhibit and to expand his research on terahertz (THz) radiation-very low-frequency light waves that scientists believe could be used for everything from DNA identification and quality control in the pharmaceutical industry, to identifying illegal drugs and explosives in public places. The CAREER Award recognizes outstanding scientists and engineers who, early in their careers, show exceptional potential for leadership.

The THz radiation Korter studies is generated using a special laser that produces very short pulses of light lasting a femtosecond, or one quadrillionth of a second. Korter's lab is one of only a handful of university-based research labs in the world exploring the potential of THz radiation for chemical applications.

"THz is invisible to the naked eye," Korter says. "Because it's very difficult to produce in the laboratory, THz is a highly underutilized region of the electromagnetic spectrum. The technology that enables us to access this region of the spectrum has only been developed over the last decade."

THz is located between infrared light and microwave radiation in the electromagnetic spectrum-or left of the "red" side of the visible light range. THz waves can safely pass through almost any kind of material except metal and create detailed images of solid objects without the harmful effects of x-rays. More significantly, THz waves enable scientists to probe the chemical properties of materials based on the vibration of the molecules that make up the substance.

The exhibit for the MOST, to be developed over the next three years, will help visitors better understand THz by answering the question: "What happens in less than a second?" The displays will explore both physical and biological phenomena that occur in units of time from one second down to a femtosecond. The exhibit will also explore how technology has been used to observe events that proceed on timescales faster than the human eye can register.

Korter will also use the CAREER funding to develop and study computer simulations of the way molecules stretch, bend and vibrate, and compare those movements with analyses of real molecules using a THz laser spectrometer.

"Every molecule has a unique chemical signature in the THz region," Korter says. "That property enables us to detect and identify the chemical composition of a substance. For example, explosives have a unique fingerprint in the THz region, as do drugs."

Korter's research will contribute to the development of a national database of THz fingerprints for different kinds of chemical compounds and help scientists better understand how these signatures are generated. "We need to learn more about the origin of these signatures, or spectra," Korter says. "It's an area that is not well understood or straightforward."

In 2006, Korter's lab was the first in the world to develop a model of the THz fingerprint for HMX, a military-grade explosive, and to understand the chemical origins of its spectral signature. The research was published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry and featured in the Feb. 3, 2006 issue of Science, and the Feb. 6, 2006 issue of Chemical and Engineering News.

Korter earned a bachelor's degree at Beloit College and a Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh. Prior to coming to SU in 2003, Korter was a postdoctoral researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

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