For centuries, pearls are captivating us with their unique beauty and mystical allure. Mythology and folklore explain how pearls have benefited humanity – at least in stories and legend. Now, however, Purdue University is presenting new opportunities for pearls. These organic gemstones may have applications in biomedical and military spectroscopy.

Cultured South Sea Pearl ring in 10K white gold.
What secrets do pearls, like seen in this ring, hold for researchers?

Purdue University is a public research institution working to develop practical solutions to our daily challenges. The University is ranked the fifth Most Innovative University in the United States by U.S. News & World Report. The Purdue Research Foundation is a private, nonprofit foundation created to advance the mission of Purdue University.


Spectroscopy studies how the interaction between matter and electromagnetic radiation as a function of the wavelength or frequency of the radiation. Yeah, that’s a mouthful! A basic example of spectroscopy is analyzing white light be dispersing it with a prism.

What the Purdue team has done is demonstrate light transport-assisted information processing. They did this by creating a pearl spectrometer.

Purdue University innovators are using pearls to provide potential new opportunities for spectral information processing that can be applied to spectroscopy in biomedical and military applications. Image Credit: Purdue University

A spectrometer probes interaction of matter and light as a function of the electromagnetic spectrum. Common applications exist in both the biomedical and military fields. We use them for detecting cancer and for sensing gasses.

“Unfortunately, widespread uses and practical adaptions of spectroscopy are often limited due to the need of conventional spectrometers,” said Young Kim, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Purdue. “The current spectrometers rely on complex device assembly, high-precision alignment and large physical size or dimension, all of which prevent rapid translation into practical applications.”

“We discovered that pearls are an ideal natural object for Anderson localization of light, named after Nobel laureate Philip Anderson, whose concept has been extended to describe how light undergoes on and off resonances inside materials due to their strong scattering,” Kim said.

Yunsang Kwak, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab at Purdue, said, “Anderson light localization offers high randomness that is extremely helpful for compressive sensing, in particular to conduct information processing  with a thin and plat form factor, by simply attaching a pearl-like multispectral filter array on a conventional camera.”

Kim said, “We do not think that the direct use of a pearl would be a good option for mass production of multispectral filter arrays. Instead, pearls teach us how to design disordered nanostructures of Anderson light localization to develop a new class of spectral information processing machine.”

This discovery may provide scientists with an idea of combining material and digital properties, which could provide innovations to biomedical and defense applications.

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