The year the laser celebrates its 50th anniversary

Author : Institute of Physics

25 May 2010

On the laser’s fiftieth anniversary, physicists assert that the discovery’s usefulness has far further to go, despite already underpinning some of the last half century’s most disruptive technologies (not least, the optical fibres which make today’s high speed internet possible).

Photo credit: Science and Technology Facilities Council
Photo credit: Science and Technology Facilities Council

While we can now find lasers in every industry from manufacturing, retail and medicine to entertainment and communications, lasers are also being developed for much more, such as personalised medical treatment and the production of virtually infinite, clean energy from nuclear fusion.

In the U.K., The Institute of Physics (IOP), the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) are using the laser’s fiftieth anniversary as an opportunity to highlight how ubiquitous this fundamental physics discovery has become and its potential for future applications.
With laser sales around the world amounting to approximately $7.5 billion annually, we have come a long way in the 50 years since the creation of the first ruby laser by Theodore Maiman at Hughes Research Laboratories in California – which, at the time, experts referred to as a ‘solution looking for a problem.’

When, in 1974, a packet of Wrigley’s chewing gum became the first ever product to be bought using a laser barcode reader or, in 1982, when Billy Joel’s 52nd Street became the first album to be etched onto a compact disc for CD players’ lasers to read, it looked like the solution had found a few rather impactful problems to solve.

Not satisfied however giving birth to the CD and DVD industry, nor revolutionising our supermarket shop, lasers have also become integral in even more impactful ways as laser beams have become the communication channel for all optical fibre-based communications.
The last 50 years have, arguably, been more altered by the discovery of the laser than any other discovery and, as today’s laser physicists are keen to stress, the next half century is set to be just as affected by the uses of laser as the last.
Lasers will help humankind out of its energy quandary – either by directing renewable energies towards greater efficiencies by, for example, detecting changes in the wind to ensure wind turbines are in the most efficient position or, as part of the world’s most powerful laser facility, HiPER, to demonstrate the feasibility of laser driven fusion as a future clean and affordable energy source.

In medicine, dyes are being used alongside lasers to identify misbehaving molecules personal to any individual’s ailment which will give doctors the information required to create individual medicines which meet each individual’s needs.
 And lasers are also being used by the pioneers on the frontiers of human knowledge to try and detect gravitational waves, to create star-like conditions on Earth, and to make desk-size particle accelerators (the LHC could be coming to a toy store near you).

High intensity lasers

Both STFC and EPSRC host world-leading laser research facilities here in the U.K.  The Vulcan laser, for example, is one of the highest intensity lasers in the world and gives U.K. and international researchers access to the best facilities available in the field at STFC’s Central Laser Facility at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire.  STFC also leads the pan-European HiPER project for laser driven fusion.

The U.K.’s highest power fibre laser – with an output of 8 kilowatts – is at EPSRC’s Innovative Manufacturing Research Centre at Cranfield University.  This laser is used in the development of the giant Trans-Alaska gas pipeline – North America’s largest ever construction project.
 Professor David Hanna, Emeritus Professor at the Optoelectronics Research Centre, University of Southampton, said, “Just as our control over the electron gave us the electronics revolution, so our control over light via the laser is ushering in a photonics revolution.  Lasers have given us a step in capability that is truly mind-boggling, and their possibilities will not be fully digested or exhausted for a very long time to come.”

Tim Holt, Chief Executive, Institute of Photonics, University of Strathclyde, said, “Today, the laser interacts with all our lives, often without us knowing it.  For example, the internet could not operate without thousands of lasers working in the background, and if those lasers suddenly stopped working, society would also stop.  Our ability to make modern, efficient and lightweight cars would be seriously affected if the manufacturers couldn’t use laser processing on the components and car body.  Lasers have changed our lives in so many ways, which nobody could have imagined 50 years ago.  The laser is a truly disruptive invention.”

Dr Kate Lancaster, Central Laser Facility, Science and Technology Facilities Council, said, “Since its invention 50 years ago the laser has had a dramatic impact on all our lives and it's hard to imagine life without it. New applications are being researched and developed almost daily in medicine, communications, industry and science - undoubtedly the laser has become a key tool in driving a whole range of socio-economic applications - a far cry from its genesis of looking for problems to solve.”

Quick history of the laser

The laser principle has its seed in Albert Einstein’s 1916 proposal for the process of stimulated emission, although he made no explicit indication that it could lead to  amplification of electromagnetic radiation.

It wasn’t until nearly 40 years later, in 1953, that Charles Hard Townes at Columbia University demonstrated a maser (Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation)  and then Theodore Maiman at Hughes Research Laboratories in California won the race to create the first laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation), using a ruby crystal. This first laser light shone on 16 May 1960.


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Physics World – The Laser at 50
A sample copy of this month’s special edition of Physics World, which includes a range of in-depth features on the laser, is available for free download.

Video interviews with leading laser experts are available here
STFC brochure – ‘Laser in our lives – 50 years of impact’
Brochures highlighting ‘Lasers in our lives – 50 years of impact’; STFC’s Central Laser Facility; and HiPER are available on request from STFC.

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