A new class of lasers developed by a team that included physics researchers at Kansas State University could help scientists measure distances to faraway targets, identify the presence of certain gases in the atmosphere and send images of the earth from space.
These energy-efficient lasers also are portable, produce light at difficult-to-reach wavelengths and have the potential to scale to high-powered versions.
The new lasers were invented by Brian Washburn and Kristan Corwin, both associate professors of physics at Kansas State University’s College of Arts & Sciences, along with Andrew Jones, a May 2012 doctoral graduate in physics, and Rajesh Kadel, a May 2014 doctoral graduate in physics. Other contributors include three University of New Mexico physics and astronomy researchers: Wolfgang Rudolf, a Regents professor and department chair, Vasudevan Nampoothiri, a research assistant professor, and Amarin Ratanavis, a doctoral student; and John Zavada, a Virginia-based optic and photonic physicist who brought them all together.
The new lasers are fiber-based and use various molecular gases to produce light. They differ from traditional glass-tube lasers, which are large and bulky, and have mirrors to reflect the light. But the novel lasers use a hollow fiber with a honeycomb structure to hold gas and to guide light. This optical fiber is filled with a molecular gas, such as hydrogen cyanide or acetylene. Another laser excites the gas and causes a molecule of the excited gas to spontaneously emit light. Other molecules in the gas quickly follow suit, which results in laser light.
The University of New Mexico (also referred to as UNM or New Mexico) is a public research university located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the United States.
It is the state’s flagship research institution, the largest post-secondary institution in the state in total enrollment across all campuses, as of 2012, and one of the state’s largest employers.
Founded in 1889, UNM offers bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral, and professional degree programs in a wide variety of fields. Its Albuquerque campus currently encompasses over 600 acres (2.4 km²), and there are branch campuses in Gallup, Los Alamos, Rio Rancho, Taos, and Los Lunas.
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Tunable radiation source that reaches coveted THz region of spectrum could be used for medical imaging or security applications
Terahertz radiation, the no-man’s land of the electromagnetic spectrum, has long stymied researchers. Optical technologies can finagle light in the shorter-wavelength visible and infrared range, while electromagnetic techniques can manipulate longer-wavelength radiation like microwaves and radio waves. Terahertz radiation, on the other hand, lies in the gap between microwaves and infrared, whether neither traditional way to manipulate waves works effectively. As a result, creating coherent artificial sources of terahertz radiation in order to harness it for human use requires some ingenuity.
Difficulties of generating it aside, terahertz radiation has a wide variety of potential applications, particularly in medical and security fields. Because it’s a non-ionizing form of radiation, it is generally considered safe to use on the human body. For instance, it can distinguish between tissues of different water content or density, making it a potentially valuable tool for identifying tumors. It could also be used to detect explosives or hidden weapons, or to wirelessly transmit data.
In a step towards more widespread use of terahertz radiation, researchers have designed a new device that can convert a DC electric field into a tunable source of terahertz radiation. Their results are published this week in the Journal of Applied Physics, from AIP Publishing.
This device exploits the instabilities in the oscillation of conducting electrons at the device’s surface, a phenomenon known as surface plasmon resonance. To address the terahertz gap, the team created a hybrid semiconductor: a layer of thick conducting material paired with two thin, two-dimensional crystalline layers made from graphene, silicene (a graphene-like material made from silicon instead of carbon), or a two-dimensional electron gas. When a direct current is passed through the hybrid semiconductor, it creates a plasmon instability at a particular wavenumber. This instability induces the emission of terahertz radiation, which can be harnessed with the help of a surface grating that splits the radiation.
By adjusting various parameters — such as the density of conduction electrons in the material or the strength of the DC electric field — it is possible to tune the cutoff wavenumber and, consequently, the frequency of the resulting terahertz radiation.
“[Our work] demonstrates a new approach for efficient energy conversation from a dc electric field to coherent, high-power and electrically tunable terahertz emission by using hybrid semiconductors,” said Andrii Iurov, a researcher with a dual appointment at the University of New Mexico‘s Center for High Technology Materials and the City University of New York. “Additionally, our proposed approach based on hybrid semiconductors can be generalized to include other novel two-dimensional materials, such as hexagonal boron nitride, molybdenum disulfide and tungsten diselenide.”
Other labs have created artificial sources of terahertz radiation, but this design could enable better imaging capabilities than other sources can provide. “Our proposed devices can retain the terahertz frequency like other terahertz sources but with a much shorter wavelength for an improved spatial resolution in imaging application as well as a very wide frequency tuning range from a microwave to a terahertz wave,” said Iurov.