Move Over, Lasers: Masers Now Work at Room Temperature

By Sophie Bushwick | August 15, 2012 1:02 pm

The core of the new room-temperature maser

When the laser was first invented, it was “a solution waiting for a problem,” a piece of cutting-edge technology with no applications. Today, found in everything from sensors to communications to surgery, the laser has come into its own—but it may be time to step aside and share the spotlight with its older brother, the maser.

Lasers and masers work on the same principle, amplifying light through a process called stimulated emission, except that lasers amplify visible light while masers act on microwaves. Light and microwaves are both forms of electromagnetic radiation, but microwaves have a wavelength 100,000 times greater than that of visible light. But although the maser has been used for deep-space communications and atomic clocks, lasers have always outshone their predecessors. And masers have only themselves to blame, as these finicky devices require extreme conditions like vacuum or cold temperatures. Now, however, researchers have finally produced a maser that functions while surrounded by air at room temperature.

While the room-temperature maser is currently a solution with few applications, it may rise to prominence for its amplifying ability. Amplifiers are a vital component in any electronic circuit. The lower their noise, the better amplifiers perform—and masers have very little noise. There’s just one flaw keeping room-temperature masers out of everything from your GPS receiver to your smartphone: the current incarnation of the room-temperature maser, still in the early days of its development, is a power-hungry device the size of a coffee cup.

“The crucial thing to point out is that this device has in no way been optimized,” says the study’s lead author, Mark Oxborrow. “Nobody really knows what the limits are. That’s what’s exciting about it.” Early lasers and even transistors were also large and ineffective, but as researchers kept tinkering with them, they gradually shrank down and wound up revolutionizing electronics. With more development, room-temperature masers could improve radio telescopes and medical scanners, and beyond. “Because amplifiers are so fundamental,” Oxborrow explains, “if they can be shrunk down, masers have a good chance of finding applications in many places.”

Image courtesy of National Physical Laboratory, Teddington, UK

  • Anthony

    microwaves have a smaller wavelength than visible light, not greater. 😉 Greater frequency, yes. I know that much science, at least.

  • Sophie Bushwick

    I think you might actually have that backwards. Visible light has wavelengths hundreds of nanometers long (100 nanometers = 1/10,000,000 of a meter), but microwaves have wavelengths at least a millimeter long (1 millimeter = 1/1000 of a meter).

    For more, check out this handy infographic (courtesy of NASA comparing the wavelengths of different types of electromagnetic radiation:

  • Karl

    Yeah, Sophie is certainly correct. She’s from SciAm, by the way.

  • Nick


  • Les

    Don’t worry, Anthony. We’re all in the hands of people who know a lot of things for sure. That’s why all the world’s problems have been solved.

  • Nathanial

    Microwaves can cause cancer.

  • proterozoic

    Science’d by Sophie Bushwick.

    On tonight’s program: Young man gets the electromagnetic spectrum backwards!

  • Geack

    @5. Les,
    This is a question about the definition of a word, not some existential debate on the possibility of knowing. If masers do somehow solve all our problems, it will be nice to understand what the heck everyone’s talking about.

  • Geack

    So can sunlight. Your point?

  • Chance

    You took a stab Anthony, but I’m guessing you didn’t google your thought before posting. I’m guilty of this quite a bit…googling takes way to long. 😉

  • Comms-Man

    Sorry Anthony, but you’ve made a mistake; the higher the frequency the smaller the wavelength when normalized for speed of propagation. This applies to many wave modeled phenomena including both light and sound waves.

    The higher the frequency, the smaller the wavelength of waves at that frequency
    The lower the frequency, the longer the wavelength of a given wave at that frequency

    i.e. wavelength is inversely proportional to frequency

    Microwaves are much lower in frequency than visible light (well below infrared light), therefore relative to visible light, they have a much longer wavelength (several orders of magnitude). Similarly, higher frequencies of electromagnetic radiation like x-rays and gamma-rays (which well above UV light) have much much higher frequencies than visible light and therefore have much much smaller wavelengths.

    But don’t feel bad, it’s easy for people to get confused about these concepts if they’re new to them, or aren’t a 100% familiar with them.


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