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Chemical power for visible-light lasers.

Chemical power for visible-light lasers

Energy generated directly by chemical reactions may soon power lasers capable of producing intense visible light. The recent development of the first visible-light chemical amplifiers marks the end of a two-decade search by scientists throughout the world for such systems. It also opens up the possibility of using lasers in remote locations such as space stations or satellites.

Conventional lasers rely on strong bursts of electricity excite materials into emitting coherent light. Notoriously inefficient, such lasers require large quantities of electrical power to operate. Chemically powered lasers promise a more efficient way to generate intense light.

"It was a long road,' says physicist James L. Gole of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, who led the research. "What we have done so far is to demonstrate that these lasers amplify radiation.' The next step, he says, is to build an oscillator consisting of a mirrored cavity that bounces light back and forth through the reaction zone.

"It's significant development,' says Terry A. Cool of Cornell University in Ithaca, NY., who years earlier had developed the first chemically powered infrared laser. Until Gole's persistence paid off, he says, scientists, despite trying many different approaches, had a long record of failure in their search for chemical reactions leading to molecules in excited states that would permit light amplification.

In Gole's pulsed amplifier, thallium atoms pick up energy from collisions with excited molecules formed by a reaction between ozone and silicon or germanium. The collisions pump the thallium atoms up to an excited state. The atoms can then be stimulated to emit their radiation in a coordinated fashion to produce light amplification. The emitted light is green. When developed, says Gole, the system could turn out to be so powerful that it may be difficult to control.

Gole and his team have also developed a less powerful, continuous light amplifier based on the reaction between three-atom sodium clusters and halogen atoms. When a halogen such as chlorine reacts with a three-atom sodium cluster, the result is the formation of sodium chloride and an excited two-atom sodium cluster. The new cluster emits light, dropping to a lower energy level, and immediately reacts with any excess chlorine. Because this reaction is so rapid, the population of excited sodium clusters is always higher than that of low-energy clusters, allowing the laser to operate continuously.

Potential applications of chemically powered lasers depend not only on the possibility of achieving high powers but also on the fact that visible light requires simpler optics and is easier to focus than infrared radiation. Visible-light lasers are also likely to be quite compact.
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Author:Peterson, Ivars
Publication:Science News
Date:Oct 24, 1987
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