Laser turns 50 (Inside Business)

Laser turns 50
Not yet beaming us up, lasers have still come a long way, Scotty

Where were you on the laser's 50th birthday?

Perhaps you didn't get the invitation, but about 200 people showed up earlier this month at the Jefferson Laboratory in Newport News to celebrate a technology that has been decades in the making but has become part of everyday life and a multi-billion dollar industry only in the last decade.

Using a few small lasers as her sidekicks, Michelle Shinn, Jefferson Lab's staff scientist, explained to the packed auditorium the history of the laser, how much of modern life we owe to the laser and what the future holds, particularly with regard to applications using Jefferson Lab's famous Free Electron Laser, the world's most powerful tunable laser.

Some of the smallest applications in the corporate world, Shinn explained, we owe to laser.

Next time you are in a board meeting and the only thing keeping you awake during the PowerPoint presentation is the colorful laser pointer, think of Gordon Gould.

As a graduate student, Gould made notes about his ideas on the concept of light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. He had the foresight to get his notes notarized in 1957, before the acronym "laser" became a multi-billion industry.

It's hard to imagine how quickly technology using lasers has evolved.

But the concept of the laser has actually been around much longer than 50 years. There were many initial scientific epiphanies that led to the birth of the laser, Shinn explained. In 1917, Albert Einstein described stimulated emission.

The ability to build lasers that could be applied to the technology world in which things get smaller and cheaper, limited the laser's application up until the early 1990s, Shinn said.

"The dream of a few has become a major industry only in the last 10 years," Shinn said.

Things we use every day now rely on lasers to function, Shinn said.

One could make the argument that modern commerce and communications would not be the same without the laser. Barcode scanners that track everything from retail purchases to warehouse inventories are made possible thanks to a laser reading the little black bars.

The fiber optic pipelines that carry cable television and high-speed Internet into communities work because of the laser light that travels through the fiber.

Shinn talked about transmission, reflection, scattering, absorption and emission, phenomena of physics that make lasers possible.

"All of these phenomena are very important in everyday life," Shinn said. "If we don't have reflection, our CD and DVD players wouldn't work."

And it may be hard to believe, but CD burners did not exist until about 1994, Shinn said to illustrate how quickly the technology has evolved in the last decade.

All the technologies that Shinn spoke of use lasers of a specific color. The color of the laser equates to the strength and ability of the beam. Many laser pointers, for example, use green or red beams. CD and DVD players use a red beam. New Blue Ray DVD players that are now rising in popularity use, you guessed it, a blue beam.

Jefferson Lab has a laser with the ability to be any color or strength beam it desires. The FEL allows users to tune the beam depending on the strength needed for a particular application.

That capability has led to advancements in nano technology such as the manufacturing of carbon nanotubes. Nanotubes are used in everything from cell phone displays to bicycle frames.

Other advancements using lasers include laser-treated cylinder liners in cars to reduce oil consumption.

Medical technology provides some of the greatest opportunity to utilize lasers. Lasers help remove tattoos, screen for cancer and blast fat cells - or laser lypo as it was being touted at Jefferson Lab.

The future uses of lasers are the stuff of science fiction.

Lasers will soon limit the need for X-rays.

In the not too distant future, Shinn said, lasers will give the world the gift of 3-D holographic projection televisions in their homes. Think of "Star Wars."

In the search of reusable energy sources for earth, advancements are being made harnessing energy from space and beaming it from satellites to the earth using lasers. The same technology may be used to beam energy from earth to stations in space.

And all the while, Gould and his family smile all the way to the bank.