A team of physicists working at Yale University have developed the world’s first anti-laser, a device which can completely absorb and cancel out a laser beam fired at it, according to a report from the BBC.
Although the thoughts of every science-fiction fan must instantly drift towards Star Trek’s deflector shields at this point, the team, lead by Professor Douglas Stone, have been very quick to stress that the technology does not necessarily have the military applications that Star Trek viewers might expect.
A laser fired at the anti-laser device has its laser light pulses absorbed, but the light energy is then dissipated as heat, which would cause a problem in a laser powerful enough to be used on the battlefield. In Professor Stone’s words:
“If someone sets a laser on you with enough power to fry you, the anti-laser won’t stop you from frying.”
Disappointingly then, the anti-laser’s most obvious applications are actually in computing. The anti-laser cancels 99.4 percent of laser light along a very specific wavelength, so an anti-laser can effectively turn a laser aimed at it on and off, making it useful as a kind of optical switch capable of operating at incredibly high speeds.
It is the specificity of the wavelength which makes the device notable. Stone acknowledged that it is relatively easy to construct a device which will absorb light across a range of wavelengths, but the precision of the wavelength absorbed by the anti-laser is the property which could make it invaluable in the next generation of supercomputers.
This discovery could lead to a paradigm shift in the way that computers are built, with optical components using light rather than electrons, and the team has also noted that the anti-laser itself is made using silicon – already an incredibly popular material in computing technology.
If optical computing takes off, the anti-laser could turn out to be a pivotal discovery. Stone and his team predicted that such a device was possible when they were trying to formulate a theory to describe which materials could be used as the basis of lasers. Their theory made room for the idea that it should be possible to construct a device, which absorbed laser light hitting it, instead of amplifying light into coherent pulses.
While science-fiction enthusiasts will have to wait a bit longer for starship deflector shields and laser-proof body armour (until there are battlefield laser weapons powerful enough to warrant their development, in fact), the future looks bright for optical computing.