Researchers at the National Physical Laboratory and Imperial College London have found a simple way to make masers. According to team leader Dr. Mark Oxborrow, this "new type of electronic device" could revolutionise the world in the same way lasers did—and even beyond that.
How revolutionary, you ask? What about detecting a tumour way before it metastasizes? Or powering a radiotelescope that could put us in contact with alien civilizations?
That's exactly what Dr. Oxborrow told BBC News:
Perhaps the one application that is most relevant is more sensitive forms of body scanners. Sensitivity matters with body scanners, because detecting a tumour before it metastasizes is so useful. If this device can make even just a slightly more sensitive body scanner, it could put smiles on people's faces - they'll still be around to smile.
Let's dream here: you could make a radio telescope that was very low-noise, 100 times more sensitive than the best at the moment... this type of maser could be used to detect some extraterrestrial intelligence that hasn't been detected.
The key to Dr. Oxborrow's team discovery is the extreme simplicity of this new electronics device. While masers are not new—the first ones were invented in the '50s—they were impractical. One type required extreme magnetic fields, vacuum and ultra-low pressures. The other required temperatures that approached absolute zero. They required huge magnets, vacuum chambers and special refrigerant liquids made them impractical for everyday applications.
But this new maser doesn't require any of that. They work at room temperature and don't require any special conditions. They work thanks to a new crystal developed at the NPL, called doped p-terphenyl (above). Thanks to this crystal, masers may become as ubiquitous as lasers in the near future. And because they can work through clouds or flesh, its applications could be seen as nothing sort of miraculous. In fact, Dr. Oxborrow says that we still can't imagine many of its potential applications.
Maser stands for Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. They were first described by Nikolay Basov and Alexander Prokhorov from Lebedev Institute of Physics in May 1952. Their research—which got them the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1964—led to the development of real devices. The first was made in America, by Charles H. Townes, J. P. Gordon, and H. J. Zeiger at Columbia University, a year later. It was a complex device that required a stream of energised ammonia molecules.
They didn't get any simpler, so Townes went on to work on a similar idea with Arthur L. Schawlow. Instead of using microwaves, they thought of using light. But it was Gordon Gould who nailed it first, calling it a LASER, which stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.
The use of visible light instead of microwaves made this new device a lot simpler than the regular masers. The latter became relegated to niche applications like atomic clocks. Lasers became ubiquitous and its real world applications went from data storage to weapons to surgical equipment to communications to disco lights.
Sadly, lasers have limitations that masers don't. Masers can go undisturbed through flesh, clouds, and solid matter, which is why this new device opens the door for body scanners that could render precise and exquisite images instantly. Or perfect explosive detectors. Or that radiotelescope, "very low-noise, 100 times more sensitive than the best at the moment" that could finally receive a distant signal from an alien civilization. Thanks to this new material, the new maser has the potential of becoming as ubiquitous as the laser, and make possible things that can't be imagined now.