Lasers are having a moment. In 2018, three physicists received the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work in “groundbreaking inventions in the field of laser physics.” It is the latest in a long line of awards for laser physics, which started in 1964 with thanks especially to South Carolinian Charles H. Townes.
This most recent Nobel Prize went to three scientists: Gérard Mourou, Donna Strickland and Arthur Ashkin. The former two were awarded for their technology “chirped pulse amplification” (CPA) and the latter for his invention of the “optical tweezer. ” The importance of laser research cannot be understated in terms of impact on scientific research.
CPA gives users the ability to have the effects of large, ultra-powerful pulses within condensed, controlled short bursts with much higher intensity, repeatedly, without damaging any accompanying tools or surfaces. One modern application of this process is the laser eye surgery that millions of people receive today. Optical tweezers allow for precise control to the highest degree: they can pick up and pin individual bacterium and particles. These have helped isolate microscopic entities, furthering research in pathology, one among many benefitting disciplines.
Although neither of these research innovations happened in the last year- both were invented in 1985 and 1987, respectively – the scientific world is acknowledging their revolutionizing impact on fields across the board. As their development moves forward, they are becoming essential tools in conjunction with other innovations to advance the frontiers of science… and the edges of industry 4.0 applications. Here are three mind-blowing laser developments to know.
- Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI) of Europe
Built between private companies and institutions of higher learning – especially from Hungary, Romania and Lithuania – this development initiative has been spearheaded by Gérard Mourou, Nobel Prize winner and founder of the University of Michigan Ultrafast Optical Science Center. The main purpose is to take the landmark achievements coming out of European institutions, such as Vilnius University, and pair them with international discoveries to further the worldwide laser knowledge base. It is the first of its kind and holds promise for creating max-power lasers.
- Laser Drilling
This non-contact process creates micro-holes and works on most materials. These very short pulses of high power are products of CPA, and help to make micro-features without damaging surrounding areas. Laser drilling is a form of micromachining, an essential tool for advanced electronics being used in medicine, aerospace and other technologies.
- Automated Optical Tweezing in Pharmaceuticals
As optical tweezers gain notoriety, scientists have worked to bring them out of the imaginative physics lab and into application labs. The University of Gothenburg has automated optical tweezers, optimizing their set-up process and slimming down their data requirements. Instead of manually presetting the lasers within pre-determined expectations and adjusting throughout the study, this new format is more exploratory. This automation allows the tweezers to function within unknown parameters, which helps with identifying unexpected results in pharmaceutical studies or examining unknown organic materials influenced by multiple biological forces.
The Not-Quite Realized Tractor Beam
No, the Star Trek “beam me up” tractor beam doesn’t exist… yet. Ongoing research into the breakthroughs created by Ashkin relate to the theoretical impacts of his work. Research institutions continue to explore the idea of lasers as matter manipulators on large scales. Essentially, the theory goes that if you can control and direct the electric and magnetic fields produced by the light surrounding matter, you can move it.