‘Life-like’ lasers learn to self organise and adapt to new conditions

Scientists have developed a new type of laser that can reorganise its structure when conditions change, imitating living organisms.

A team of researchers from Imperial College London and University College London have presented the first 'spontaneously self-organising laser device', which can reconfigure itself when conditions change, paving the way for new materials for sensing, computing, light sources and displays.

To design the 'life-like' device, the team took inspiration from the versatility and adaptability of living organisms.

As described in a paper on their work published in the journal Nature Physics, the innovation is expected to help enable the development of smart photonic materials capable of better mimicking properties of biological matter, such as responsiveness, adaptation, self-healing and collective behaviour. 

In a similar way to how bone and muscle are able to reorganise their structure and composition to adapt to changes in body weight and activity, the lasers can self-organise and cooperate in response to new situations. 

“Lasers, which power most of our technologies, are designed from crystalline materials to have precise and static properties," said co-lead author Professor Riccardo Sapienza. "We asked ourselves if we could create a laser with the ability to blend structure and functionality, to reconfigure itself and cooperate like biological materials do.

“Our laser system can reconfigure and cooperate, thus enabling a first step towards emulating the ever-evolving relationship between structure and functionality typical of living materials.”

The self-assembling lasers in the team’s experiment consisted of microparticles dispersed in a liquid with high ‘gain’ – the ability to amplify light. Once enough of these microparticles collect together, they can harness external energy to ‘lase’ – produce laser light.

The researchers then used an external laser to heat up a ‘Janus’ particle (a particle coated on one side with light-absorbing material) around which the microparticles gathered. The lasing created by these microparticle clusters could be turned on and off by changing the intensity of the external laser which, in turn, controlled the size and density of the cluster.

To demonstrate the adaptability of the system, the team showed how the lasing cluster could be transferred in space by heating different Janus particles. The particles can also create clusters with new properties, such as changing their shape and boosting their lasing power.

Although lasers have many different uses in industry and are widely used in industrial production, telecommunications and medicine, scientists believe that a new generation of adaptable devices will open the door to the development of innovative materials such as next-generation electronic inks for smart displays.

“Embodying lasers with life-like properties will enable the development of robust, autonomous, and durable next-generation materials and devices for sensing applications, non-conventional computing, novel light sources and displays,” said co-lead author Dr Giorgio Volpe. 

Looking forward, the team will begin studying ways of improving lasers’ autonomous behaviour to render them "even more life-like". 

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