News Release

New photonics research to solve for environmental challenges

Recipients of Optica Foundation 20th Anniversary Challenge report ways to address water contamination, energy consumption, and air pollution

Grant and Award Announcement


Optica Foundation 20th Anniversary Challenge Winners

image: Recipients of the Optica Foundation 20th Anniversary Challenge prizes in Environment, Health and Information. view more 

Credit: Optica Foundation

WASHINGTON – Today, the Optica Foundation released details of promising photonics research solving for global environmental challenges. Featuring the Foundation’s 20th Anniversary Challenge  awardees, this research aims to introduce new, cost-effective ways to test water purity at the source; provide an affordable and real-time system for water contaminant detection; harness heat energy and apply it toward electricity needs; and sense micro-pollutants in air quality. 

“This photonics research seeks novel and powerful approaches to address critical environmental issues,” said Alan Willner, chair of the 20th Anniversary Challenge Selection Committee and 2016 Optica President. “The selection committee will excitedly be monitoring the awardees’ progress and sharing their findings as they become available. We look forward to the significant impact of their work on society.”

Environmental work from the 20th Anniversary Challenge includes the following:

 Portable Water Sensing

  • Dismas Choge, University of Eldoret, Kenya

Development of tunable multi-color laser for sensing: case study for hyperspectral detection of water contaminants 

Research Executive Summary

According to the United Nations, over three billion people are at risk because the health of their freshwater ecosystems is unknown. Having portable, cost-effective detection systems will help in identifying impure and dangerous water sources, and new research from Dismas Choge, University of Eldoret, Kenya, addresses that issue by focusing on the development of a multicolor physical laser that can be deployed for detecting water contaminants.

“Today, atomic emission spectroscopy or mass spectroscopy techniques for water evaluation require very expensive instrumentation, and for the samples to be analyzed with prior preparation to get results,” explained Choge. “My proposal is to develop an optical system that will provide more rapid results. In addition, it will not destroy the sample, which will support its deployment for contaminant detection.”

This novel approach to water evaluation will leverage an optical sensing system with tunable physical lasers. The design will consider relevant sensing wavelengths, bandwidth, and power, to maximize results and efficiency. Once the theoretical design is established, Choge plans to fabricate a prototype device for testing. 

“In about six months, I expect we will have fabricated a few prototypes with different properties to evaluate in developing an optimum device,” he shared. 

Real-Time Water Sensing

  • Ashim Dhakal, Phutung Research Institute, Nepal

Piloting an affordable and real-time Water Assessment System (WAS) for detection of fecal coliforms in drinking water 

Research Executive Summary

Globally, at least two billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with feces, and 829,000 die each year from diarrhea as a result of unsafe drinking-water, sanitation, and hand hygiene, according to the World Health Organization. Water remediation cannot occur without clear monitoring, sampling, and detection, and the systems deployed to support those efforts can be costly, making them inaccessible in the regions that would most benefit from their use. Now, with applied research from Ashim Dhakal, Phutung Research Institute, Nepal, a cost-effective and efficient option may be on the near horizon.

“The traditional way to test water is to incubate it and analyze the microorganisms present. This approach takes infrastructure, chemicals and agents, and approximately 24 hours of incubation time,” said Dhakal. “Why not evaluate the water with optical technologies to get information in real-time at low cost? From that idea, this work was born.”

Dhakal proposes a flat-lens optical system that uses light to detect the presence of fecal coliforms in a water source. This system is portable, with an ability to conduct real-time analysis and offer a user-friendly reading for a fraction of the cost of the current methodology. 

Currently working to improve upon four existing prototypes, Dhakal expects to be able to pilot five different prototypes of these sensor-based systems in the next three months. From there, he plans to organize an end-user workshop to garner experiences and feedback as part of an agile testing approach, and then refine the prototypes with three sets of iterations and seek to deploy the technology on a wider scale. 

“This work will result in cost reduction for the systems and a simplicity so that anyone can assess their water. People will be more aware and have an inexpensive system to evaluate and regulate their water, and that might lead to saving a lot of lives,” summed up Dhakal. 

Waste Heat as Energy Source

  • Michela Florinda Picardi, ICFO – The Institute of Photonic Sciences, Spain

THUNDER - THermal UNpolarized radiation Design for Energy Recycling 

Research Executive Summary

Every process, industrial or natural,  generates heat as a byproduct. Consider, for example, a light bulb’s external temperature after being on for hours: Even with modern technologies, part of the energy it produces is spent warming it up. Now, Michela Florinda Picardi, ICFO – The Institute of Photonic Sciences, Spain, is proposing an original approach to harnessing this heat to transform it into an energy source. 

“My work is based on physical principles that are known in nanophotonics but have never been used before in thermal emission,” said Picardi. “Heat can be converted into light, and light can be used to generate electricity. So, we can get to a place where we generate energy for free, using that waste heat. Every process could become a source of energy. It could be groundbreaking.” 

By designing thermal emitters to harvest the power of thermal radiation, Picardi plans to leverage properties intrinsic to the nature of light to attain specific phenomena. That achievement will then be used to manipulate the thermally emitted spectra to maximize the energy output.   

Over the next six months, Picardi will be working to develop a formalism to put a framework around this concept. “These phenomena are not new, but they have never been observed for thermal light. We know what it should look like, but don’t have the map to get there, and that’s what my work will do,” she said.

Clean Greenhouse Gas (CO2 and Methane) Monitoring 

  • Wanvisa Talataisong, Suranaree University of Technology, Thailand

An innovative optical fibre device for micro-pollutants and greenhouse gas monitoring 

Research Executive Summary

According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, CO2 emissions need to be cut 45% by 2030, compared to 2010 levels to meet the central Paris Agreement goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, and efforts remain insufficient to achieve that goal. Talataisong’s work will introduce a new way to cleanly and cost-effectively monitor emissions to address them rapidly in their individual geographies.  

“An optical sensor is a clean technology sensor,” said Talataisong. “It is suitable for long-term gas monitoring, just using properties of light and no chemicals. It also can be a more affordable solution.”

Talataisong’s proposal introduces three options for optical sensing technology to monitor CO2 and methane emissions: 1. A fiberized plasma resonance sensor for compact sensing; 2. A hollow core fiber, fabricated with a unique technique to create an inexpensive option; and 3. A fiber Bragg grating for nanoparticle detection. In six months, she expects to have prototypes of the first two sensors and initial research on the third possibility to support a way to monitor air quality in a cost-effective, efficient manner, and provide a path for local governments to strategically address air pollution at its source. 

“As I develop the technology, it will help our country, our people, to have clean technology for greenhouse gas detection. These sensors will demonstrate how much it is affecting society with the potential for real impact on industry in the future,” Talataisong concluded. 

The Optica Foundation launched its 20th Anniversary Challenge to draw out novel ideas from early-career professionals and provide the seed money to investigate impactful hypotheses in the areas of environment, health, and information. Each of the recipients received $100,000 USD to explore their ideas and take steps toward addressing critical global issues. Recipients have begun work on these projects and expect to report initial results by the second quarter of 2023. For more information and to follow their journeys, visit

Optica Foundation

Established in 2002, the Optica Foundation carries out charitable activities in support of the society’s student and early career communities. We cultivate the next generation of leaders and innovators as they navigate advanced degree programs and become active members of research, engineering and business 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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