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Chinese scientists turn a simple wire into laser-like light

The invention could enhance the speed of electronic devices and improve security screening technology.

Chinese scientists have conceived of a new method for generating laser-like light that could significantly enhance the communication speed of everyday electronics, according to a report by the South China Morning Post published on Friday.

The new device that makes this light possible is known as a free-electron laser, and it has been developed by scientists from the Shanghai Institute of Optics and Fine Mechanics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The technology is not entirely new. Such lasers have existed before, but they were bulky, high-powered devices housed in large, expensive facilities that made them impractical for daily use or mass applications.

The new device, however, uses only a thin piece of wire about 8cm (3.1 inches) in length, to emit laser-like light in a broad range of wavelengths for a wide variety of applications. Typical laser light is normally restricted in these areas.

A team of honor guards

Research co-author Ye Tian told the Shanghai Observer that his invention achieved this breakthrough by finding a way to sync electrons “like a team of honor guards” to generate more power.

Chinese scientists turn a simple wire into laser-like light
The new laser light could be used in the development of electronics.

In order to create lasers, electrons in the atoms of optical materials like glass, crystal or gas need to absorb energy in the form of light or electricity.

When they do so, that extra energy prompts the electrons to move to a higher-energy orbit. This does not last, however, and soon enough the electrons need to return to their normal orbit, emitting photons along the way. In laser beams, the photons all move in the same direction and at the same wavelength which is what the Chinese scientists managed to recreate.

“Imagine the electrons as athletes rowing a boat. The team that can make bigger waves and generate higher power will win the race. The best strategy is for all athletes to paddle in the same direction,” said Tian.

Now, experts around the world are claiming the new technology could easily find ready applications for improved security screening by making more efficient body-scanning machines or in the development of more advanced electronics such as smartphones.

“With further refinement, and finding ways to produce higher frequency light, tiny silicon-based lasers made from this technology will find their way into phones and other devices for high-speed communications and precision sensors,” told SCMP David Gozzard, with the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research in Australia, who was not involved in the study.

Compatible with ongoing research

The development also has the potential to be incorporated into other ongoing research.

“The prospect of replicating (these) findings with visible radiation is particularly exciting, because it could lead to highly compact sources of amplified light,” physicist Nicholas Rivera from Harvard University wrote in a commentary published by Nature.

“This could be especially useful in materials, such as silicon, that are widespread and readily fabricated, but that have so far proved challenging to use as media for lasers,” he said.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature on Wednesday.

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