by Jenny Knodell, IQS Editor
Ever heard of Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation? It may sound unfamiliar, but it’s the technical name for a laser, one of the most important inventions of the last century. They have been around for about 50 years and make our lives easier in so many ways. Lasers remove scars, correct vision, scan bar codes and provide hours of endless entertainment for my kitten. Without them, CD players, printers and check-out line scanners would not exist. In the medical and manufacturing industries, lasers are slowly taking the place of cutting materials with scalpels, saws, blades and stamps because they are more reliable, offer higher accuracy and continuous operation. Lasers are able to penetrate through any material, from the hardest metals to human skin and a single layer of tissue in your eye.
Photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman Cutting Edge Optronics.
Essentially, lasers are devices used to concentrate light into a narrow beam, directing high amounts of energy onto a small defined point to heat, melt and vaporize material. They vary in temperature, strength and size according to their specific application. Solid state lasers such as YAG lasers use a solid medium like garnet, rubies or glass to excite electrons, which release excess energy through a series of mirrors. They are used in many cosmetic procedures, including dermabrasion and acne treatments. Gas lasers like CO2 lasers use helium and neon as a medium, and are considered to most powerful and dangerous type of lasers, mostly used for cutting metals and welding. If light sabers were a reality, they would definitely be gas lasers. Diode lasers use microscopic chips that act as the semiconductor. They are less powerful and are integral parts of laser printers and CD players.
The scope of laser applications seems to be ever-expanding. Last weekend at the annual TED (technology, entertainment, design) Conference, Microsoft unveiled the laser’s newest job: zapping mosquitoes! Hundreds of the little guys were contained on stage in a glass tank. Several lasers, which were able to track the bugs’ movements, shot them down mid-flight, leaving nothing but a small puff of smoke. The software is able to detect the speed and size of the object before it decides whether or not to shoot, thus protecting larger animals (humans, birds and harmless bugs like butterflies). These lasers are based on the technology that guides lasers in printers and when combined with image detecting devices used in digital cameras, a highly accurate and successful bug zapper was born. Besides detecting the size of the insect, it can determine whether or not it is female. Since only female mosquitoes bite humans, the males are left alone for the sake of efficiency.
Today, bug spray and netting are the only guards we have against those annoying biting bugs. Once the laser bug zappers hit the market though, they could ensure an evening out on the porch or deck results in zero itchy bites. More importantly, they could replace pesticides and provide effective protective barriers around hospitals and clinics in countries where malaria-carrying mosquitoes are a huge safety concern. They could cost as little as 50 dollars each, and just may be the end to the hassle and danger of mosquito bites. Check out these videos for a slow-motion close-up of the lasers in action.