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Ex-Star Wars boffins build mosquito-blasting raygun

Fiery photon vengeance wrought upon pestilential bloodsuckers

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Here on the Reg raygun desk, we like a deadly laser cannon designed to rid the skies of airborne assailants as much as the next man - indeed, perhaps rather more so. On some days our simple pleasure is spoiled, however, by the thought that humanity is merely wasting its resources on engines of destruction, and doing little to make the world a better place.

Today is not one of those days, for today brings news of boffins hard at work on a powerful sky-sweeping laser intended for the betterment of all humanity, not merely the resolution of disputes among the planet's warrior classes. This laser will ignore nuclear missiles, bombardment rockets, enemy planes and suchlike. Instead, this rather smaller blaster cannon is intended to flicker like a dancing disco pencil-beam of surgical death, snuffing out aerial disease-bearing insects by the thousand or even million.

The idea, in fact, is to vaporise malaria-bearing mosquitoes with a relatively minor laser beam, so preventing the tiny pestilence-pests from infecting or reinfecting human beings. Brainboxes formerly employed by the US missile-defence programme now toil to wipe out malaria, which still kills a million people a year in the developing world.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the boffins are funded in large part by Nathan Myhrvold, formerly of Microsoft, who had been asked to look into sorting out malaria by his old boss Bill Gates. Much of Gates' charitable empire is focused on just that task.

Apparently Myhrvold bumped into Lowell Wood, a former nuclear-bomb boffin, who came up with the notion of simply blasting mosquitoes en masse using automated, rapid-firing laser guns able to clear a large volume of the tiny flying bloodsuckers in quick time.

Wood recruited a team of former weaponry brains, entomologists and others with useful skills. According to the WSJ, "they killed their first mosquito with a hand-held laser in early 2008" - presumably either having signed up some latter-day Billy the Kid to wield the blaster, or perhaps having tied the unfortunate insect down first.

"We like to think back then we made some contribution to the ending of the Cold War [with the Star Wars missile-nobbler push]", says Dr Jordin Kare - late of the Lawrence Livermore atom bomb lab. "Now we're just trying to make a dent in a war that's actually gone on a lot longer and claimed a lot more lives."

Today it seems that the mosquito-blaster is considerably more advanced. Using parts apparently purchased on eBay, the boffins have assembled a Heath Robinson contraption of mirrors, Mag-lite illuminators, camera lenses and so on, and placed this fearful engine of insectoid genocide under the control of a Dell PC. Placed across the room from an empty fishtank filled with mosquitoes, the machine reaps a deadly harvest. The WSJ notes:

A mosquito hovers into view. Suddenly, it bursts into flame. A thin plume of smoke rises as the mosquito falls. At the bottom of the screen, the carcass smolders.

The gear doesn't sound as though it's ready to go prime-time quite yet, but it's plainly promising stuff. According to Myhrvold et al, similar devices might one day be mounted in flying robots and cruise above the malaria-riddled swamps of Africa. Behind them a crispy rain of incinerated mosquitoes would fall, as their flickering photon weapons cleansed the skies of mankind's deadliest enemy.

There are some mild concerns over power level, safety etc, of course. But Myhrvold says the gear can already tell nice insects like butterflies from pestilential bloodsuckers. Indeed, it can even tell female mosquitoes from male - by measuring wingbeat, apparently. As any fule kno, it is only the females which suck blood - the males are vegetarians.

"If you really were a purist, you could only kill the females, not the males," Myhrvold tells the WSJ before adding - no doubt with a barely-suppressed mad cackle of laughter - that in fact he intends to "just slay them all".

Read all about it here. ®

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