Tag Archives: NPL

Meet MASER, Laser’s High Powered Older Cousin

Lasers have been around for a long time now. They are so ubiquitous, you can find them in computers, hunting rifle scopes, medical devices, and even a child’s play thing. Believe it or not, about 50 years ago, most of the devices that use lasers had not even been conceived of. What you also may not know is that the laser has an older cousin that has been sitting quietly on the shelf for nearly 50 years. It’s name is MASER.

Where LASER is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, MASER is Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. So basically, instead of visible light, the MASER produces a concentrated beam of microwaves. Though MASERs were actually developed first, the conditions it took to create them were very difficult to achieve. For instance, they required nearly absolute zero temperatures to operate. New research done by Britain’s National Physics Laboratory (NPL) and Imperial College, London has resulted in a solid-state room temperature MASER. The research has been published in the journal Nature and was led by Dr. Mark Oxborrow.

The MASER core via NPL Youtube Video

Up until now, MASERS were only a thing of physics labs and research facilities. The only real practical use for them was in atomic clocks. Now that the NPL scientists have been able to remove the extreme environmental conditions from the MASER, more practical applications are likely to be introduced. According to an NPL press release, “MASERs could be used to make more sensitive medical instruments for scanning patients, improved chemical sensors for remotely detecting explosives; lower-noise read-out mechanisms for quantum computers and better radio telescopes for potentially detecting life on other planets.” In the embedded video below, Dr. Oxborrow gives a brief description of the MASER and shows the core they invented to make all of this possible.

[Video Link]

Conventional MASERs work by directing microwaves at crystals such as ruby. Unfortunately, this material requires extremely low temperatures, as well as a lot of costly magnets to work. The NPL scientists discovered a new type of crystal called p-terphenyl crystal. This crystal is “doped” pentacene which allows it to be used to amplify microwaves at room temperature. There are still challenges facing the MASER. One, is to get it to work continuously instead of in pulses. The other, is to get it to operate in a broader range of microwave frequencies to make it more useful. To keep up with the MASER research, visit http://www.npl.co.uk/news/maser.