Masers are, for the uninformed, microwave lasers. They were like lasers, only they sucked. They were huge, they had to be cooled to ten degrees above absolute zero, they had less power… there were only a very few practical applications and hence the maser was mostly a curiosity.
Notice the past tense there. Mark Oxbarrow, a physicist at the UK National Physical Laboratory, built a relatively small one that works at room temperature and is vastly more powerful than current masers.
And he built it out of a crystal he didn’t even build right, a laser he got off of eBay, and some other crap lying around the lab.
In his spare time. Oh, and it worked on the first try, too.
Here’s how it came together. Oxbarrow stumbled across a paper from Japanese scientists suggesting a crystal made out of pentacene might, if excited by a laser, go to a metastable state. Fire a microwave through it and they’d drop out of the state, releasing microwaves of the same wavelength. So, yeah, your typical laser, but with microwaves.
So, he made the crystal, and actually managed to screw it up a little bit: He describes the crystal as “singed”. He bought an old laser off eBay. And then he forgot about it until he got into an argument with his wife and went to the lab to blow off steam. He decided what the hell, flipped the switch and BAM! Relatively small, room temperature maser. And it was vastly more powerful, to boot, as in one hundred million times as powerful as existing masers.
So what are the applications? Good question. To this point, masers have mostly been used to boost communications signals for space travel, amplify radio telescopes, and to provide exact frequencies for atomic clocks. They were basically too big, too unwieldy, and impractical compared to lasers to do anything else. Oxbarrow’s maser is essentially the stuff of science fiction; nobody thought it could exist so nobody has worked on it.
In other words, we have absolutely no idea what the maser can be used for. The implications for communications and astronomy alone are absolutely mind-boggling. But if Oxbarrow can slap one together in a half-assed fashion and have it work, and more importantly, do so in a way that’s actually fairly cheap and easy to do, we’re going to be seeing more of these things sooner rather than later.
image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech