News Release

Photonics technologies to expedite environmental analysis

Optica Foundation Challenge yields research toward technologies that can more rapidly monitor for nanoplastics in soil and water and detect greenhouse gases

Grant and Award Announcement


Photonics Technologies to Expedite Environmental Analysis


Researchers Justus Ndukaife, Vanderbilt University, USA, and Yicheng Wang, Ruhr-Universität-Bochum/Photonics and Ultrafast Laser Science (PULS), Germany, both are working to create light-based solutions to sense, measure and address environmental toxins in the form of nanoplastics and greenhouse gases.

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Credit: Optica

  • USD$200,000 awarded to photonics entrepreneurs developing technologies to strengthen environmental analysis and incite more rapid response
  • Detecting nanoplastic toxins with light-based sensors
  • Exploring a new wavelength for greenhouse gas sensing

WASHINGTON – The Optica Foundation today released details on the environmental research funded by the 2023 Optica Foundation Challenge. Researchers Justus Ndukaife, Vanderbilt University, USA, and Yicheng Wang, Ruhr-Universität-Bochum/Photonics and Ultrafast Laser Science (PULS), Germany, both are working to create light-based solutions to sense, measure and address environmental toxins in the form of nanoplastics and greenhouse gases.

“With various critical global environmental challenges, scientists and engineers are exploring new advanced solutions to impactfully address key issues,” said Alan Willner, chair of the Challenge Selection Committee. “Both Drs. Ndukaife and Wang have proposed innovative photonics solutions to more efficiently and rapidly detect environmental toxins so they can be mitigated and avoided.”

Two USD$100,000 grants from the Optica Foundation support both research efforts, and Ndukaife and Wang will use these funds to advance their work in the following ways:

Detecting nanoplastic toxins with light-based sensors

  • Justus Ndukaife, Vanderbilt University, USA

Next-Generation high throughput plasmonic nanotweezers for nanoplastics analysis

Research Executive Summary

When plastics are created, they essentially last forever. In fact, 79% of all plastic that has ever been made still sits in landfills or the natural environment. These plastics then break down into tiny toxins, or nanoplastics—which due to their smaller size and more penetrative physical characteristics are far more toxicologically active than microplastics—that contaminate the soil and waterways, making them a health hazard for entire ecosystems.

Detecting nanoplastics remains a significant challenge due to their size. Current analytical tools are limited, hindering the comprehensive understanding of nanoplastic exposure and its consequences. Now, new research from Justus Ndukaife, Vanderbilt University, USA, seeks to enable the sensing of individual nanoplastic particles with a solution called plasmonic nanotweezers.

“Not only do nanoplastics affect our environment, but they also impact our health. For example, recent studies are finding these toxins in infant formulas, drawn in from bottles. As a new father myself, that’s an additional cause for concern,” said Ndukaife. “If we can screen for nanoplastics, we can better protect ourselves and our world. Photonics has the potential to identify these toxins on the single particle level, and I believe plasmonic nanotweezers may be the answer to doing that.”

Using plasmonic nanotweezers, Ndukaife has developed a high throughput method to trap and analyze microscopic and nanoscopic plastic particles. The initial phase of his project aims to prove that these nanotweezers are effective in detecting these particles. Following this, he plans to focus on pinpointing their unique chemical markers, akin to fingerprints, which would enable differentiation from other materials. Within the next six months, Ndukaife intends to merge these steps, thereby establishing a technique that not only captures but also identifies these minuscule pollutants with precision and efficiency. In essence, his work is paving the way for a quicker, more accurate approach to identifying and studying these tiny environmental contaminants through advanced light-based technology.

A new wavelength for more precise greenhouse gas detection

  • Yicheng Wang, Ruhr-Universität-Bochum/Photonics and Ultrafast Laser Science (PULS), Germany

High-power 2-μm frequency combs for rapid greenhouse gas sensing (HoLa-Comb)

Research Executive Summary

The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) closed in December 2023 with the assertion that global greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut 43% by 2030. Despite this focus on lessening emissions, the knowledge necessary to act remains hard to come by—monitoring regional emissions through sensitive remote detection of these gases continues to be challenging.

New work from Yicheng Wang, Ruhr-Universität-Bochum/Photonics and Ultrafast Laser Science (PULS), Germany, strives to address these issues by employing a new form of sensor. Building on sensing work utilizing Holmium-based laser systems, Wang will develop a novel approach that allows the detection of greenhouse gases in the 2-micron wavelength region. This wavelength offers potential advantages for stronger greenhouse gas detection, allowing sensors to more effectively pinpoint gas emissions on a granular level.

“Companies invested in climate research and businesses conducting oil and gas mining need accurate tools to assess emissions,” said Wang. “My proposed solution—the HoLa-Comb—will allow for increased sensing power and stability, and at the same time, account for compactness and simplicity.”

As a first step, Wang intends to publish details of this new laser and HoLa-Comb’s proof-of-concept design. From there, in six months’ time, he plans to build a prototype, stabilizing it for testing, and by year-end, he expects to be administering the first demonstration of the modern technology in sensing greenhouse gas emissions.

These research initiatives were made possible through the Optica Foundation Challenge grants. This challenge was designed to engage early-career professionals in out-of-the-box thinking and provide seed money to investigate hypotheses in the areas of environment, health and information. Each recipient received USD$100,000 to explore their ideas and take steps toward addressing critical global issues. Recipients have begun working on these projects and expect to report initial results later in 2024. For more information, visit

Optica Foundation

Established in 2002, the Optica Foundation carries out charitable activities in support of the society’s student and early career members. We cultivate the next generation of leaders and innovators as they navigate advanced degree programs and become active members of research, engineering and business communities worldwide. The foundation also works to secure the endowments for Optica’s awards and honors programs. The foundation is registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit. For more information, visit

About Optica

Optica (formerly OSA), Advancing Optics and Photonics Worldwide, is the society dedicated to promoting the generation, application, archiving and dissemination of knowledge in the field. Founded in 1916, it is the leading organization for scientists, engineers, business professionals, students and others interested in the science of light. Optica’s renowned publications, meetings, online resources and in-person activities fuel discoveries, shape real-life applications and accelerate scientific, technical and educational achievement. Discover more at:

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