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SPIE Professional July 2009

Advancing the Laser

SPIE celebrates past breakthroughs, current laser applications, and future possibilities for coherent light.
SPIE Advancing the Laser

SPIE is celebrating laser technology during the run-up to the 50th anniversary in 2010 of the first demonstration of a working laser with a multifaceted look at the rich array of applications for the technology.

The tribute is Advancing the Laser: 50 Years and into the Future.

Since Theodore Maiman successfully demonstrated his ruby laser at Hughes Research Labs in California on 16 May 1960, scientists, engineers, inventors, and entrepreneurs all over the world have found countless ways to make and use lasers, spawning billions of dollars' worth of new industries.

Today, laser technology impacts nearly every aspect of life on the planet and has opened new fields of science, technology, and medicine.

Laser light diagnoses and treats disease; enables the Internet, GPS, and supermarket scanners; provides entertainment via CD and DVD players; and allows us to measure distances between Earth and the stars, to name just a few laser applications. The use of laser technology for precision cutting and manufacturing of autos, aircraft, and MP3 players has become standard, and laser beams can sense and measure gases in the atmosphere.

As a light-based technology, the laser has always been a core area advanced through SPIE conferences, exhibitions, educational programs, and publications. The Advancing the Laser Web site includes articles by and about past and current laser luminaries and activities at several SPIE events throughout the year.

SPIE events in Europe and North America will showcase laser speakers and projects. SPIE Photonics West, which includes the LASE (Lasers and Applications) Symposium and will be held in San Francisco, CA, in January 2010, will be the site of several activities for the celebration, including displays of state-of-the art laser technology and high-level talks by laser experts.

A workshop and plenary speakers at SPIE Europe Optics+OptoElectronics in Prague in April also focused on laser technology. Rodolfo Bonifacio of the Italian National Nuclear Physics Institute gave a plenary presentation on the Quantum Free Electron Laser there, and a workshop covered collaborative efforts of the emerging European laser facilities such as HiPER (the High Power Laser Energy Research project), ELI (the Extreme Light Infrastructure), and the European X-Ray Laser project (XFEL).

SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs and Maiman in 2001. Maiman died in 2007.

SPIE's Advancing the Laser tribute includes an overview of major laser institutes around the world, stories from the history of laser R&D, predictions about future possible applications, multimedia interviews with laser luminaries, and other articles and video features.

Among those making predictions about the future of laser technology is George Neil, associate director of the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Virginia where he manages the Free Electron Laser.

Neil says he expects a great expansion of the use of lasers in the production of materials for enhanced properties such as unusual surface alloying, laser glazing, and pulsed lased deposition of organics.

"Photo-catalyzed surface reactions may play an increasing role in industrial processing," Neil says. "I also believe medical uses of lasers will expand to diagnosis and treatments of melanomas as well as advances in photodynamic therapies with tunable lasers."

Jim Pearson, director of research and administration at CREOL, the College of Optics & Photonics at the University of Central Florida, also points to medical applications as a high impact area for lasers of the future. Pearson worked at Hughes Research Lab in the 1970s, in the very room where Maiman fired the first ruby laser.

"From the time of the laser being 'a solution looking for a problem,' to today providing an enabling solution to almost every application from medicine to communications to defense, laser technology will continue to provide solutions to more and more problems," Pearsons says.

"The technologies I think will have the greatest impact in the next 5-10 years are nanophotonics, ultra-small laser and related optical components, and ultrafast photonics, pulsed lasers with pulse durations in the femtosecond and attosecond regime."

  • Go to spie.org/advancingthelaser to see SPIE Newsroom archival interviews with laser inventor Theodore Maiman, Nobel Laureate Charles Townes, and others.
  • Also see the article in this issue of SPIE Professional about the National Ignition Facility in California, the world's largest and highest-energy pulsed laser system.
  • The SPIE Newsroom regularly adds new technical articles and video interviews about the latest laser technologies. Go to spie.org/news-lasers 
  • Optical Engineering, SPIE's flagship journal, is preparing for a special section on lasers early in 2010.

Lasers Go to the Moon and Beyond

Charles Townes, who shared the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics with Nicolay Basov and Aleksandr Prokhorov for the 1958 invention of the microwave-emitting maser, discussed his awe of the applications for the laser in a 2003 publication.

"The ruby laser was used in many early spectacular experiments. One amusing one, in 1969, sent a light beam to the Moon where it was reflected back from a retro-reflector placed on the Moon's surface by astronauts in the U.S. Apollo program.

"The round-trip travel time of the pulse provided a measurement of the distance to the Moon."

- Excerpted from A Century of Nature: Twenty-One Discoveries that Changed Science and the World, University of Chicago Press, Laura Garwin and Tim Lincoln, editors

Lasers Can Measure Air Quality

Researchers from Princeton and Rice universities studied changes in Beijing's air quality during the 2008 Summer Olympics with laser-based sensors. The project was sponsored by MIRTHE, a partnership of six institutions that use quantum cascade laser technology to measure airborne chemicals. The center was established by the National Science Foundation and is led by Princeton's Claire Gmachl.

They used a quantum cascade laser open path sensor, which emits a beam of light that travels up to a kilometer to a reflector that bounces the beam back to its original source. Another sensor collects air samples at a single point and then passes a beam through the air in an internal chamber.

The sensors work on the principle that different gases absorb different wavelengths of light. By analyzing the signatures of the gases that pass through the laser beams, the researchers were able to study changes in smog levels.

Read more about lasers and smog in Beijing

Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4200907.09

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