7 mind-boggling uses for frickin' laser beams
26th May 2009 | 11:30
How lasers are being put to fascinating, sometimes scary, uses
Lasers: from CD players to Blu-ray, our consumer tech lives just wouldn't be the same without them.
But out in the real world, these pinpoint rays of light are being put to some fascinating - even scary - uses that simply boggle the mind.
Here are seven great examples...
1. Airborne lasers
Thanks to a government preoccupation with lasers that stretches back to the Reagan era, the US military has poured billions of taxpayers dollars in to projects that could see Star Wars-style weapons appear on the battlefield or even in the skies.
[Picture credit: Boeing]
One such project is the USAF Airborne Laser - a massive device housed in the body of a Boeing 747-400 that uses vast amounts of chemicals to deliver a high power beam that can shoot missiles out of the sky. In a very real sense it's also a project that may not yet get off the ground - the astronomical costs are forcing cost-conscious senators to question the validity of it altogether.
2. Incredibly fast cameras
Developed by scientists at the University of California in Los Angeles, STEAM (Short-Time-Encoded Amplified Microscopy) is currently the world's fast camera, taking 6.1 million pictures a second and at shutter speeds of 1 trillionth of a second. No happy snapper, this.
[Picture credit: UCLA]
The camera uses an infrared laser, with light beamed at different frequencies for every one of its 3,000 pixels, to capture objects that are normally not bright enough to see. The next challenge for the UCLA team, led by Keisuke Goda, is to increase the resolution to many million pixels, while also increasing the amount of pictures that can be snapped to 100 million per second. Unfortunately you're unlikely to find the camera in your local high street any time soon - it'll be used to capture sub-atomic particles.
3. Higher capacity optical discs
This one's a bit closer to home. General Electric, venerable US maker of everything from solar panels to domestic appliances, has developed a holographic optical disc the same size as a DVD - and it uses blue laser technology to harness it.
[Picture credit: General Electric]
The disc currently has a maximum capacity of 500GB - 10 times that of the highest capacity Blu-ray discs. General Electric says discs - and presumably players - could be on sale within the next couple of years, leading to all kinds of exciting possibilities for next-gen games consoles like the Sony PlayStation 4 and, of course, for watching 3D or even Ultra HD movies on future TVs.
4. Atom-teasing optical tweezers
You're working in a science lab and your job today is to grab hold of an individual cell under a microscope, twist it, turn it and generally move it around. How? You obviously can't use conventional instruments, which is why optical tweezers were developed instead.
Optical tweezers focus beams of laser light which attract or repel individual particles, enabling you to manipulate them every which way you like. Future optical tweezers should now be even more useful than before thanks to the pioneering work of scientists at Pennsylvania State University. They've come up with an L-GRIN fluid lens that enables optical tweezers to be used with even greater precision.
5. Battlefield lasers like you've always dreamed of
Last November, Northrop Grumman announced Firestrike - a ruggedised laser weapon capable of delivering 15kW power per unit, with the ability to combine these units into even more powerful weapons - great for taking out baddies on the battlefield.
[Picture credit: Northrop Grumman]
Northrop Grumman went several steps better last March, finally announcing a 105kW laser, the first to be dubbed 'weapons-grade' - that is capable, reliable and powerful enough to be used in theatres of war on land, at sea or in the air.
What's different about this laser weapon is that it's solid state - there are no vast vats of chemicals sloshing around like in the USAF Airborne Laser, arguably making it much more fit for purpose as a military weapon in the long-term - something on which most military experts and US government sponsors seem to agree.
6. Lasers in any colour you like
One of the biggest obstacles to the more widespread uses of lasers is that scientists, engineers and consumer tech makers have to keep coming up with new materials and techniques to produce lasers of different colours.
That may sound silly, but it's well-known that Sony spent millions of man hours and piles of cash on searching for the secret to blue laser light creation for Blu-ray - the chief reason being that different colour lasers have different focal lengths, which in Blu-ray's case enables the pits on a Blu-ray disc to be packed in more tightly, increasing storage capacity. Phew.
[Picture credit: University of Rochester]
Scientists at the University of Rochester say they've cracked that conundrum by coming up with a new kind of nanocrystal that enables different colour lasers to be made from the same materials, making them much cheaper and easier to produce - and that could have profound implications for the gadgets we know and love: imagine a pocket money PS3, for example.
7. Making stars on planet Earth
The Large Hadron Collider may or may not turn the Earth into a massive black hole, but over at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the US, scientists are working on something even more exciting - the creation of stars on Earth.
[Picture credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory]
Its National Ignition Facility (NIF) houses a network of 192 lasers, the light from which - it is hoped - can be amplified and filtered to eventually create nuclear fusion - the atomic reaction that gives our sun its awesome power.
Liked this? Then check out 10 green projects that just might save the world
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