After decades of living in obscurity, the maser – the laser's microwave-emitting cousin – is finally coming out of the cold.
Researchers have developed an easier-to-use version of the maser, paving the way for a variety of scientific and medical applications.
The maser, which stands for Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, was developed by scientists more than 50 years ago, before the first lasers were invented. Instead of creating a concentrated beam of light, the maser delivers a concentrated beam of microwaves.
But the technology has had little impact because until now it has been difficult to put to practical use, requiring freezing temperatures or extremely low pressures to work.
But in the journal Nature, scientists are reporting that they have now found a way to operate a maser at room temperature.
Conventional masers amplify microwaves using hard inorganic crystals such as ruby, a process known as "masing."
In their experiment, researchers from the National Physical Laboratory and Imperial College London used another type of crystal, called p-terphenyl. They doped it with a molecule called pentacene, and found that they could replicate the process at room temperature.
The discovery could potentially lead to masers becoming as widespread as laser technology. They could be used to develop more sensitive medical scanners or detectors for explosives, among other things.
The technology could also improve deep-space communication. "[T]he new maser can be seen as a first step towards a space-communication capability with which we could talk to extraterrestrials using a 'phone' at room temperature," researchers wrote.
"When lasers were invented no one quite knew exactly how they would be used, and yet the technology flourished to the point that lasers have now become ubiquitous in our everyday lives," said Professor Neil Alford, co-author of the paper and head of the Department of Materials at Imperial College London.
"We've still got a long way to go before the maser reaches that level, but our breakthrough does mean that this technology can literally come out of the cold and start becoming more useful."