We're all familiar with lasers, those amplified beams of light that brighten our Mötley Crüe concerts, scan our groceries and help us not look like such nerds by removing the need for our big stupid glasses. Just kidding; we love big stupid glasses. You know what else is cool? Some all-new room-temperature masers.
Maybe some of you may have even heard of sasers (that's a sonic laser), but what about masers? They're microwave lasers, and scientists may have figured out a way to make them part of our everyday lives.
Lasers and masers are a lot alike: They both work through a process of stimulated emission and both project different wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation. Masers, for their part, make excellent amplifiers as they offer very little noise (therefore a better amplifier). The reason you probably aren't as familiar with masers as you are with their visible light cousins is that they can only function in a vacuum or extreme cold.
Despite their limitations, masers have still found a place in some top-shelf technologies, such as deep-space communications and atomic clocks, but otherwise, if engineers want to utilize a focused bit of electromagnetic radiation in an earth-bound piece of technology, lasers are basically the only option.
A team of researchers at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, United Kingdom has published a study describing their method for operating a maser at room temperature in a room filled with air. The one thing holding back this new technology from finding its way into our gizmowhatnots is that, at this early stage in its development, the room-temperature maser is extremely power-hungry and the size of a coffee cup.
That said, new technology almost always starts out rough and then becomes refined over time. We may soon find versions of masers in our everyday technologies. As the study's lead author, Mark Oxborrow, commented to Discover Magazine's Sophie Bushwick, "Nobody really knows what the limits are. That's what's exciting about it… Because amplifiers are so fundamental, if they can be shrunk down, masers have a good chance of finding applications in many places."
Room-temperature maser image courtesy the National Physical Laboratory.