'Tricking' the Light Fantastic: Renowned Baylor Scientist Uses Quantum Mechanics “Tricks” to Monitor Agricultural Crops With Lasers

May 2, 2019
News - Scully
Dr. Marlan Scully

Dr. Marlan Scully examines wheat plants on the Salter Research Farm.

Contact: Whitney Richter, Director of Marketing and Communications, Office of the Vice Provost for Research, 254-710-7539
Written by: Gary Stokes, Office of the Vice Provost for Research

WACO, Texas (May 2, 2019) – Someday, in the not-too-distant-future, an Iowa farmer strolls out of his home to see a small drone methodically roving high above his sprawling corn crop. The farmer then dons an augmented reality headset to view the overhead image of his crop supplied by the drone. With sweeps of his hand and finger-taps in the air, he tags several small colored blotches superimposed over the spectroscopic image of his field like a weather-radar display. The GPS coordinates for each blotch appear on the image. “Hmm, better get those plants a drink,” he says to himself. “They're looking a little dry.” Again, using a hand gesture, he summons a gangly water tanker and dispatches it to the thirsty plants and returns to the house for breakfast. In another application of his research he is studying new ways to detect black mold.

Science fiction? At this point, yes, but such systems may be a reality soon, thanks in large part to the work of Dr. Marlan O. Scully in the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative’s Quantum Optics Laboratory.

Scully

Dr. Scully joined Baylor University in 2011 as Distinguished Academician of Science and Engineering, having received virtually every award relevant to his field. Elected in 2016 as a Foreign Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Scully was previously elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Academia Europaea, the National Academy of Inventors, the Max Planck Society, and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Besides his Baylor appointment, he holds concurrent positions at Princeton University and Texas A&M University, where he directs Texas A&M’s Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering, Center for Theoretical Physics and is Distinguished Professor and holder of the Herschel Burgess Chair in the department of physics.

A Casper, Wyoming, native, he completed his graduate studies at Yale under Dr. Willis Lamb, winner of the 1955 Nobel Prize in physics. With that academic pedigree, Scully was well prepared to carry the developing technology of lasers into the enigmatic underworld of quantum mechanics.

To determine the condition of crops and ornamental plants in his lab, Scully uses a technique called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, or LIBS. LIBS itself isn’t new, but adapting LIBS for use in a crop monitoring system reliable and robust enough to be practical in a field setting certainly is new.

The key to LIBS is a powerful, titanium-sapphire laser that does its work with pulses of light measured in femtoseconds – quadrillionths of a second. For scale, there are as many femtoseconds in one second as there are seconds in 32 million years. Scully uses the extremely short laser bursts to burn a small area of a test plant, producing a plasma plume. Scully’s team then uses a compact, off-the-shelf spectroscope to identify traces of elements in the plume.

“The extremely short duration of laser pulses is very important in this application,” Scully explains. “If the pulse is too long the plasma starts interacting with the [laser] light and that interferes with our ability to accurately determine what’s in the plasma. It also causes more damage to the plant.”

Scully

Through painstaking experiments on wheat and gardenia plants, Scully’s researchers found that different degrees of drought-induced stress caused certain elements — calcium, phosphorous, nitrogen, sodium and iron among them — to be present in the plasma in varying concentrations. Sodium in particular proved to be a very reliable marker of drought stress.

Though the crop monitoring system imagined in the introduction might be a decade or more from becoming practical, Scully’s impeccable credentials as a theoretician coupled with his uncanny knack for tackling fundamental research that also has potential for near-term practical application has attracted many of the brightest and most celebrated minds — including Nobel laureates — from other universities and the world of science to work with him both at his Quantum Optics Laboratory at Baylor and at his labs at Texas A&M and Princeton.

Not only does Scully enjoy research partnerships with accomplished scientists, he relishes adding momentum to the careers of promising junior faculty. Dr. Zhenrong Zhang is an associate professor of physics at Baylor who, thanks to a collaboration with Scully, has been able to expand her research into nanoscale quantum-optic sensing.

“Dr. Scully committed his funding to jump start this new collaborative project,” Zhang says. “He has supported the necessary upgrade of my research apparatus — a scanning tunneling microscope — to combine with his state-of-the-art Raman microscopy.” Early findings from Zhang’s work recently resulted in a sizeable National Science Foundation grant.

Dr. Howard Lee is another Baylor assistant professor in physics who is getting a career boost from Scully. In addition to his research in Scully’s lab in the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative, Lee received an appointment as a Fellow and visiting professor at Texas A&M’s Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering, which Scully heads.

“[Dr. Scully] is really a role model for me,” said Lee. “Whenever I talked to people in optics, they all knew him, even my advisor at Cal Tech. Many of his friends are Nobel Prize winners, and you can see his influence as a scientist. Another way he is a role model is, if you look at him, he is seventy-something and is still active in science, still able to have many new ideas, and of course, for me, to be very supportive of younger faculty.” Lee credits Scully’s support for his access to lasers and instrumentation required to win funding for his research.

Scully

Scully’s intellectual energies are as strong as ever in his passion for science and the quantum world specifically. However, among the over 700 publications to his credit are also acclaimed writings in philosophy, religion, and theology.

Scully is an ardent Christian whose devotion to faith and family underpins all his work. “My best friend and collaborator is my wife,” he says of Judith Bailey Scully, with whom he raised three sons. “And one thing that I do always try to emphasize to my students is that our presence here on Earth is a gift. Science and the spiritual side of the universe are two sides of the same coin; I think that bears repeating and we should always keep it in mind.”

Scully is hopeful about the future of his work. “These same quantum tricks are only now being applied to biology and biological systems for the first time, enabling us to monitor cancer growth, spot a virus and identify different bacteria. These are perhaps the most important [developments] from the perspective of short-term impact and spinoffs [of his work] that will benefit mankind.”

Most recently, he and his friends, e.g., Baylor Professor Anzhong Wang, are working on a different perspective on Hawking – Unruh black hole radiation. In fact, on any given weekend, black hole hero Bill Unruh (FRS and visiting TAMU Institute for Advanced Studies Fellow) and Scully might be found hiking on the Salter Research Farm and talking about quantum mechanics. From black mold to black holes, the Baylor – Salter research group is pushing the frontiers!

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