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After 60 Years, a Room-Temperature Maser 102

gbrumfiel writes "Before there were lasers, there were masers: systems that amplified microwaves instead of light. Solid state masers are used in a variety of applications, including deep space communication, but they've never been as popular as lasers, in part because they have to be cooled to near absolute zero in order to work. Now a team of British physicists have built a room-temperature maser using some spare chemicals and a laser they bought off of eBay. The new device is 100 million times as powerful as existing masers and might revolutionize telecommunications."
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After 60 Years, a Room-Temperature Maser

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    While this may be the worlds' first room-temperature solid-state maser, it certainly isn't the first room temperature maser. Standard hydrogen masers (the ones that help NIST tell what time it is) are certainly not cryogenic.

    • Ah, but does that use a laser they bought off of eBay?

      No? Then *yawn*.

      I mean, just imagine what the British team can do with a laser they bought off of craigslist or backpage.

    • by teridon ( 139550 )

      Can hydrogen masers amplify any frequency? I admit I know next to nothing about them, but I was under the impression they could only amplify at the resonant frequency of hydrogen (e.g. see [])?

  • Absolute Zero (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @06:35PM (#41002879)

    Just to nitpick a bit, 10 K (as the article mentions) is really quite easy to achieve with off-the-shelf cryogenic equipment, and not the "near absolute zero" as the summary sort of suggests (I usually reserve this for 1 K, but maybe this is just me).

    • by hamster_nz ( 656572 ) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @07:39PM (#41003633)

      Must be just you...

      * When I need a hat on it's cold

      * When my beer in the truck freezes overnight then it's really cold

      * When the diesel in my truck freezes overnight then it's really cold.

      * When my desktop maser works without any external cooling, then it's near absolute zero.

      • When my Helium has a positive JT coefficient it's really cold.

        • by Grog6 ( 85859 )

          It always struck me as strange how you can use liquid nitrogen to help recondense liquid helium; the little sterling engine makes the coolest noise...

      • Re:Absolute Zero (Score:5, Informative)

        by Yvanhoe ( 564877 ) on Thursday August 16, 2012 @05:19AM (#41007937) Journal
        Just to elaborate :

        - Liquid nitrogen boils at 77 K (â'196 ÂC; â'321 ÂF), it is very cheap and a hobbyist can get this easily.
        - Liquid helium boils at 3-4 K and is also produced industrially.
        If you have something that requires a low temperature but no lower than 77K, it is very easy : just dip it in liquid nitrogen.
        If you have something that requires 10K, it is "easy" also : put it into liquid helium.
        I think it is fair to say that "near absolute zero" is a sentence that supposes heavy cryogenic installations. 10 K is far easier than that.
        • Yes, you can use liquid helium to cool it, and it's probably easier than running your own cryogenic cooling pumps. But unfortunately it's not cheap - it's about $10/liter, vs. less than $1/liter for liquid hydrogen or $0.10 for liquid nitrogen. And there's a limited supply of helium in the world, so it's likely to be getting more expensives. (Liquid H2 temperature is about 20K, so it's not quite enough for a maser that needs to be 10K.)

          Room-temperature masers are much more practical. And they're a lot

          • by Yvanhoe ( 564877 )
            You have to admit that having to attach a cryogenic system on the shark also has a touch to it, too...
    • Re:Absolute Zero (Score:5, Interesting)

      by TubeSteak ( 669689 ) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @09:16PM (#41004621) Journal

      You know what's better than having to use off-the-shelf cryogenic equipment?
      Not having to use it.

      IMO, this is the real news:

      He came across a decade-old publication by Japanese researchers [] suggesting that when the electrons in pentacene are excited by a laser, they configure such that the molecule could work as a maser, possibly even at room temperature.

      I wonder how many other scientific breakthroughs are just sitting around waiting for anyone to conduct basic followup on a research paper.

      • If only scientists were paid to review other scientists' work, replicate it, and maybe build upon it. But that doesn't get you grant money, usually. That's more often reserved for new work or application, it seems.

        • Well, this guy did it. And I bet he now has no problems getting more funding. That is point of reserving money for new work - you don't know what you might get, when building on other people's work you get the benefit of hindsight.

      • Re:Absolute Zero (Score:5, Informative)

        by Yvanhoe ( 564877 ) on Thursday August 16, 2012 @05:23AM (#41007955) Journal

        I wonder how many other scientific breakthroughs are just sitting behind paywalls waiting for anyone to conduct basic followup on a research paper.

        Here, fixed that for you. As a CS professional and biology hobbyist, I once decided to use my free time to get a specialization in gerontology genomics and to help open source projects in bioinformatics. I then discovered that 90% of the papers in the field are behind paywalls that even some universities can't access. I needed to read maybe 100-200 papers to have a good view of the field. At 25$ each, it made it expensive to volunteer freely for research projects...

      • I wonder how many other scientific breakthroughs are just sitting around waiting for anyone to conduct basic followup on a research paper.

        And that in the subsequent decade the Japanese researchers didn't do what these guys did. Strange, they'd probably have a compelling business in operation by now.

    • To be fair, I don't think your arbitrary distinction is any better than theirs. It sound ridiculous, but in my work I consider anything warmer than 0.4 K "warm" because of how much technology and engineering you need to to best it (working on a dilution refrigerator). I'm sure there is someone working with nuclear demagnetization who balks at my standard, too.

      Accepting that, I think it's perfectly fine for the public to refer to 10 K as "nearly absolute 0" because on the typical public-used temperature sc

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @06:39PM (#41002951)

    "Using spare chemicals, a laser bought on eBay and angst from a late-night argument, physicists have got the world's first room-temperature microwave laser working."

    Getting this to work reliably is going to require a reliable source of angst. Any high school should do the trick.

    • by rwven ( 663186 )

      The most annoying thing about this is that the dude had it built for three days and refused to turn it on out of fear of failure. Kudos for getting it done and a slap for being a wuss about it.

      • by Zan Lynx ( 87672 )

        I'm like that whenever I buy a new computer part. Sometimes it sits in the box for weeks.

      • When the difference between success and failure is the difference between microwaving the Jiffy-Pop while it is still in the cupboard, and the expression "Ow! My sperm!", I'd be hesitant as well.
    • This may drain all of the angst out of the entire school, altering youth forever.

    • So if it is powered off of angst does that mean we can power it off of twilight dvd's and books?

    • Now this is my sort of science! I expect that this discovery has been made several times before with a predictable outcome; hence its "undiscovered" status.
    • by c0lo ( 1497653 )

      Getting this to work reliably is going to require a reliable source of angst. Any high school should do the trick.


      The final impetus came from an argument with his wife.

      Seems like the problem has been taken care.

  • Super Wow (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    This is frikken huge news, if it pans out. I'm old enough to remember when news of the first MASERs came out. Before LASERs.
        Just the applications alone in Atomic Spectroscopy, ECR technology, high power communications- do you realize just how sloppy the frequency spread of Klystrons and similar devices are? Accelerator Technology, space charge cooling,... the implications for Fusion research...
        Super Wow.
        If it pans out.

    • by m6tt ( 263581 )

      This could be great for p2p 802.11 links of some kind as well...I wonder if having the beam coherent would have any effect on things like rain and fog effects...

  • by Anonymous Coward

    This is a thread I'll get my popcorn for.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    ... you could vaporize a man sized object from space...

  • Considering this is Nature, the lack of any numbers, or even a link to a paper are very disappointing. The writing style itself makes it sound like they've just turned lead into gold as well...

    I want diagrams, temperatures, power figures, etc. Not waffle. I expect better.

  • "most in the field gave up on masers and moved on to lasers, which use the same principles of physics, but work with optical light instead of microwaves."

    what the hell? microwaves are still EM radiation. EM radiation is light. thus a maser is just a regular laser in a different wavelength, no more different from a green laser vs a red laser....which are also just different wavelengths of light.

    • Mod parent up.
    • by lee1 ( 219161 )
      I only see the term "maser" in popular accounts of science. In my experience the people who work on them call them "lasers", "free-electron lasers" (FELs), "microwave lasers", etc. And microwave lasers have been commonplace for decades in the form of FELs. What's new here is the "solid state" part.
    • by danlip ( 737336 )

      The quote says "optical light", which means the range visible to humans. The quote also says "the same principles of physics", which could easily be interpreted to mean "still EM radiation". So there is nothing wrong with that quote.

    • by Amouth ( 879122 )


      optical light is a form of EM radiation
      microwaves are form of EM radiation

      optical light is not any form of microwave
      microwaves are not any form of optical light

      optical light is a defined band in the possible EM radiation wavelengths and so is microwaves, but the two defined bands do not at all intersect

    • by sjames ( 1099 )

      You might notice given a cursory inspection that EM radiation at differing wavelengths can behave quite differently. So much so that the equipment really isn't interchangeable. That's why you don't see homebrew CT scans being done with overclocked keychain flashlights, for example. Likewise, you can't just crank the frequency knob on a ham transmitter and use it as an improvised security light.

  • The next step seems to be a portable power supply...

    = Maser Gun! Nice.

  • It may be 100 Million times as strong as its predecessor, but in absolute terms it required 1.5 KILOWATTS of input power to generate 100 MICROWATTS of output power []. Not the most efficient thing in the world - that's an input:output power ratio of 15 million:1 (nearly 72 dB).

    • by necro81 ( 917438 )
      Perhaps, but when the incoming microwave signal is measured in nanowatts or picowatts, a gain of 100 million is pretty damned awesome. Bulk electrical power is easy to come by; a stronger incoming signal is very hard to come by. Depending on the application, who cares if the efficiency of the equipment is lousy.

      A better way to look at "efficiency" is to consider how much energy is required to transmit some unit of information across a certain distance. 1.5 kW electrical power is not actually all that
      • I should have quoted this part of the article: "When configured as an oscillator, the solid-state maser’s measured output power of around 10 decibel milliwatts is approximately 100 million times greater than that of an atomic hydrogen maser, which oscillates at a similar frequency (about 1.42 gigahertz)." [emphasis mine].

        I was not referring to it's gain as an amplifier; rather it's rather meager output as a 1.42 GHz oscillator. For 1.5 kW in, I'd expect at least half that much power out to be consider

    • by sjames ( 1099 )

      Considering that he got that first try with a far from perfect crystal he cooked up in a hurry, it's reasonable to expect some rapid improvements now that we know it''s not a complete waste of time.

      • I agree completely (that's why I said "Good start"), but the wild, rabid enthusiasm of other commenters need to take that into account. They obviously didn't RFTA, so they hear 'maser' and thought it meant 'death ray'.

        PS - I think you may have made it onto the DEA's watch list with your phrase "crystal he cooked up in a hurry". :-)

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