From The Editor | August 4, 2023

3 Novel Uses Of Lasers

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By John Oncea, Editor

GettyImages-1203979652 laser in lab

Novel uses of lasers continue to expand as researchers discover new ways to harness their properties and develop innovative applications across various industries.

In 1960, the invention of lasers was initially seen as a solution without a specific problem to solve. However, over time, lasers have become an integral part of modern society, finding a wide range of uses in various fields such as consumer electronics, information technology, science, medicine, industry, law enforcement, entertainment, and the military.

One of the key applications of lasers is in fiber-optic communication, which has revolutionized modern communication services like the internet. Other innovative applications of lasers over the past 70 years include:

  • Medical Treatments: Laser technology has revolutionized medical treatments in areas such as eye surgery (LASIK), skin treatments (laser skin resurfacing), and even cancer treatments (laser ablation of tumors). Lasers offer highly focused and precise energy delivery, making them valuable tools in minimally invasive surgeries and therapies.
  • 3D Printing: Laser-based 3D printing, also known as laser sintering or laser melting, is a cutting-edge manufacturing process that uses lasers to selectively fuse materials layer by layer. It enables the production of complex and customized parts, often used in aerospace, automotive, and medical industries.
  • Laser Communication: Laser communication, also known as free-space optical communication, uses lasers to transmit data between satellites, aircraft, and ground stations. This technology provides high bandwidth, secure, and low-latency communication links, making it crucial for space missions and certain military applications.
  • Lidar Technology: Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) is a remote sensing technology that uses lasers to measure distances and create high-resolution maps. It is widely used in autonomous vehicles for real-time object detection and obstacle avoidance, as well as in environmental monitoring and archaeological surveys.
  • Laser Cooling and Trapping: Scientists have developed laser cooling techniques to slow down and trap atoms and ions. This research has led to the creation of Bose-Einstein condensates, a state of matter with unique quantum properties. These ultracold atoms are essential in quantum computing and quantum simulations.
  • Laser Peening: Laser peening is a surface treatment process that uses high-energy lasers to induce compressive stresses in metal components. It improves fatigue life, corrosion resistance, and mechanical properties of materials, making it valuable in the aerospace and automotive industries.
  • Laser Spectroscopy: Laser spectroscopy is a powerful technique used to study the interaction of light with matter. It helps identify and analyze chemical compounds, study molecular structures, and detect trace amounts of substances. Applications include environmental monitoring, forensic analysis, and food safety testing.
  • Laser Microscopy: Lasers are used in various microscopy techniques, such as confocal microscopy and two-photon microscopy, to obtain high-resolution images and study biological samples with exceptional detail. These methods have significantly advanced research in cell biology and neuroscience.
  • Laser Art and Entertainment: Lasers are widely used in entertainment shows, concerts, and theme parks to create stunning visual effects, laser light displays, and holographic projections. These applications add an immersive and captivating experience for audiences.
  • Laser Archaeology: In archaeology, lasers are used in techniques like lidar scanning to reveal hidden structures and landscapes from historical sites. This non-invasive approach helps archaeologists better understand ancient civilizations and landscapes without disturbing the artifacts.

What’s New In The World Of Lasers?

Researchers are constantly refining these existing laser innovations, as well as discovering new uses for them. Here, we look at three recent laser-related developments, from discovering novel puncture-resistant materials to opening a window into Earth’s mysterious insides.

Bullet Proof

Scientists are always on the lookout for new materials that can better withstand high-speed puncture events. However, it's been difficult to determine how a promising new material will behave in real-world situations based on its microscopic details. To address this issue, reports Technology News, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has developed a new method.

This method involves using a powerful laser to shoot microscale projectiles into a small sample at speeds close to the speed of sound. By analyzing the energy exchange between the particle and the sample at the micro level, the system can predict the puncture resistance of the material against larger, energetic projectiles (like bullets) that might be encountered in real-world situations. This approach reduces the need for a lengthy series of lab experiments with larger projectiles and samples.

“When you’re investigating a new material for its protective applications, you don’t want to waste time, money, and energy in scaling up your tests if the material doesn’t pan out. With our new method we can see earlier if it’s worth looking into a material for its protective properties,” said NIST chemist Katherine Evans.

One Step Closer To Fusion-Based Energy

Researchers at the University of Rochester have devised a new method that simplifies the creation of fuel pellets for nuclear fusion reactors, reports Interesting Engineering. This could aid in the mass production of energy from nuclear fusion, taking it out of the laboratory and into the real world.

Igor Igumenshchev and Valeri Goncharov, researchers at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE) at the University of Rochester, have found a new way for fusion energy plants to create fuel pellets. This method, called dynamic shell formation, utilizes liquid droplets to construct targets for lasers to ignite.

It was first proposed by Goncharov, a renowned scientist and assistant professor at Rochester's Department of Mechanical Engineering, in 2020. However, it had not been tested in a lab until now. The dynamic shell formation technique involves injecting a liquid droplet of deuterium and tritium into a foam capsule. Lasers are then aimed at the capsule, which transforms into a spherical shell. The shell then collapses and implodes, causing ignition. Because dynamic shell formation does not require cryogenic hydrogen isotopes, it is both less expensive and easier to scale.

“This experiment has demonstrated the feasibility of an innovative target concept suitable for affordable, mass production for inertial fusion energy,” said Igumenshchev, a senior scientist at LLE, in the press release.

Compact Ultrafast Lasers For Biomedical Applications And More

A group of researchers has successfully created a fiber laser that is capable of producing femtosecond pulses in the visible spectrum of the electromagnetic field, Optica reports. This breakthrough could potentially lead to the development of fiber lasers that produce ultra-short, highly luminous visible-wavelength pulses, which could be employed in a variety of biomedical applications, as well as in material processing and other fields.

Obtaining visible femtosecond pulses typically involves complex and inefficient setups. However, fiber lasers offer a promising alternative due to their reliability, small size, efficiency, lower cost, and high brightness. Until recently, it was not possible to directly generate visible pulses in the femtosecond range (10-15 s) using fiber lasers.

“Our demonstration of a femtosecond fiber laser operating in the visible spectrum paves the way for a new class of reliable, efficient, and compact ultrafast lasers,” said research team leader Réal Vallée from Université Laval in Canada.

A fiber laser utilizes an optical fiber that is infused with rare-earth elements to serve as the lasing medium. Despite being highly durable and dependable, fiber lasers are usually confined to the near-infrared spectral range due to the use of silica fibers. The team led by Vallée has been working to broaden the spectral range of these laser sources by making use of fluoride fibers instead of silica.

“We previously focused on developing mid-infrared fiber lasers, but recently gained interest in visible fiber lasers,” said Lord. “Although the lack of compact and efficient pump sources for such lasers hindered their development for a long time, the recent advent of semiconductor-based laser sources operating in the blue spectrum has provided a key technology for the development of efficient visible fiber lasers.”