Room temperature 'maser' developed

16 August 2012
By Sofia Mitra-Thakur
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The room-temperature maser

The room-temperature maser

Scientists have demonstrated that they can operate a solid-state 'MASER' at room temperature for the first time using new technology.

The team from the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and Imperial College London say they have paved the way for the widespread adoption of MASER technology, in research published in the journal Nature.

MASER stands for Microwave Amplification Stimulated Emission of Radiation and it was invented by scientists more than 50 years ago, before LASER technology was developed.

Instead of creating intense beams of light, as in the case of LASERs, MASERs deliver a concentrated beam of microwaves.

However, the MASER has had little technological impact because it was inconvenient to use – only functioning in high magnetic fields, a vacuum and freezing conditions at temperatures close to absolute zero (-273°C).

The scientists at Imperial and NPL have developed technology that enables them to operate the MASER at room temperature and without the need for an external magnetic field.

“For half a century the MASER has been the forgotten, inconvenient cousin of the LASER,” said Dr Mark Oxborrow, co-author of the study at NPL.

“Our design breakthrough will enable MASERs to be used by industry and consumers.”

The breakthrough means that the cost to manufacture and operate MASERS could be dramatically reduced, which could lead to them becoming as widely used as LASER technology.

The researchers suggest that the MASER could be used in a range of applications including more sensitive medical instruments for scanning patients, improved chemical sensors for remotely detecting explosives, advanced components for quantum computers and better radio astronomy devices for potentially detecting life on other planets.

“When LASERS were invented no one quite knew exactly how they would be used and yet, the technology flourished to the point that LASERS have now become ubiquitous in our everyday lives,” said Professor Neil Alford, co-author and Head of the Department of Materials at Imperial College London.

“We’ve still got a long way to go before the MASER reaches that level, but our breakthrough does mean that this technology can literally come out of the cold and start becoming more useful.”

Conventional MASER technology works by amplifying microwaves using crystals such as ruby – this process is known as “masing”.

However, masing only works when the ruby is kept at a very low temperature.

The team in the today’s study have discovered that a crystal called p-terphenyl doped with pentacene can replace ruby and replicate the same masing process at room temperature.

The twin challenges the team are currently facing are getting the MASER to work continuously, as the prototype device only works in pulsed mode for fractions of a second at a time.

They also aim to enable it to operate over a range of microwave frequencies, instead of its current narrow bandwidth, which would make the technology more useful.

In the long-term, the team have a range of other goals including the identification of different materials that can mase at room temperature while consuming less power than pentacene-doped p-terphenyl.

The team will also focus on creating new designs that could make the MASER smaller and more portable.

The research was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and, at NPL, through the UK’s National Measurement Office.

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