Laser revolutionizes mosquito repellants

It is something right out of a Star Trek episode: Out of a showy weapon flashes a laser beam and — a bug drops to the floor? Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft’s former chief technology officer, presented a laser that shoots down bugs at the annual TEDTalks conference in Long Beach, Calif. this month.

The idea for such a laser was envisioned in 2008 by Bill Gates, a malaria-prevention advocate. He brought up the idea in a conference. Later, during the 2009 TED conference, he said, “Malaria is spread by mosquitoes. I brought some. There is no reason only poor people should be infected.” And with that, he unleashed mosquitoes into the crowd. Initially, many people had discarded Gates’ idea of a gun to kill mosquitoes as a joke. However, Myhrvold analyzed the requirements, and, against skepticism, he created the gun.

What makes this laser interesting, however, is how it is made. Although it was designed by Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures Laboratory, the laser gun is made using everyday household items, such as parts of printers, cameras, and projectors. The precision of laser printers, the imaging technology of certain cameras, and the power of Blu-ray made the laser relatively easy to create. The laser from the TEDTalk demonstration was made using only parts bought on eBay.

This gun was demonstrated at the conference by releasing mosquitoes into a glass tank, where the laser would strike the mosquitoes. This event was recorded and replayed in slow motion so the details of the bug’s obliteration could be observed. The mosquito’s body would become wisps of smoke curls with wings still beating. What is special about this laser gun are its additional options. It detects the size and speed of objects so that it will not harm something other than mosquitoes. One can press buttons and choose to increase the intensity for larger mosquito concentrations. The lasers can shoot between 50 to 100 mosquitoes per second, according to The New York Times.

Myhrvold’s vision for this new technology is for it to become commonplace. He estimates that the price of the laser gun in market could be as low as $50. With an instrument so cheap, some may raise concerns about how this would affect the delicate balance of life. The laser is so precise that it can not only target mosquitoes, but it can also determine its gender. Since female mosquitoes are the only ones that sting, the laser will let the males go.

But why combat mosquitoes in the first place? The idea is not to battle just any pesky insect that will sting you. This laser gun is hoped to help in the prevention of deadly diseases like malaria, which are transmitted primarily through mosquitoes. A child dies every 30 seconds from malaria, according to the World Health Organization.

Although there have been earlier versions of such a malaria-combating laser, this is the first one to be made so cheaply that it can actually be mass produced and be used by just about anyone. Currently, Myhrvold is looking into how feasible it is to ship such equipment out to those in third-world countries where malaria is more prevalent.