MASERs set to challenge lasers with new solid state technology

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MASERs are set to challenge lasers after the demonstration of a solid-state MASER that works at room temperature.

MASER stands for Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, and the new room temperature solid-state technology could see it used to make more sensitive medical instruments for scanning patients; improved chemical sensors for remotely detecting explosives; lower-noise read-out mechanisms for quantum computers; and better radio telescopes for potentially detecting life on other planets. The use of solid-state technology also raises the prospect of cheaper manufacturing costs for MASERs.

That’s the conclusion of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and Imperial College London scientists that developed the solid-state MASER. Dr Mark Oxborrow, an NPL researcher working on ultra-stable microwave and optical oscillators, is a co-author of the study. He says: ‘For half a century the MASER has been the forgotten, inconvenient cousin of the laser. Our design breakthrough will enable MASERs to be used by industry and consumers.’

Two challenges that remain are, getting the MASER to work continuously, as their first device only worked for fractions of a second, and getting it to operate over a range of microwave frequencies.

MASERs were developed before the laser and previously the technology works by amplifying microwaves using hard inorganic crystals such as ruby. This process is known as masing. Getting it to work has always required a special vacuum chamber or freezing conditions at temperatures close to absolute zero, -273.15°C. Strong magnetic fields have also often been necessary, requiring large magnets. It is the discovery that p-terphenyl doped with pentacene can replace ruby, replicating the masing process at room temperature.

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