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60. After Lasers—Masers?

Turning cold war-era technology into the machine of the future.

By Fangfei ShenJanuary 18, 2013 6:00 AM


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Lasers pop up everywhere in modern life, from supermarket scanners to the cables that bring the Internet into your house. But few of us have encountered the laser’s cold war–era relative, the maser, which produces concentrated beams of microwaves. Maser technology has been held back by weak performance and chunky dimensions. That changed this year when researchers in England created a downsized prototype that is 100 million times as powerful as typical existing masers.

Most masers are the size of a vending machine, bulked up by the strong magnets and refrigeration systems required to make them work. “I wanted to liberate the maser,” says physicist Mark Oxborrow of the National Physical Laboratory, “to free it from the prison of the refrigerator.” The key was finding a material that creates microwaves at room temperature. After extensive testing, Oxborrow and his colleagues zeroed in on a hydrocarbon crystal made of p-terphenyl and pentacene. The crystal emits a precise beam of coherent microwaves when struck with yellow light. The resulting maser is smaller than a pineapple.

Masers can detect and amplify weak radio signals, so Oxborrow expects his upgraded technology will enhance GPS and radio astronomy. Other, new applications might include signal boosters in devices used for blood testing and in the detection of contaminants in the air or in food.

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