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What is a MASER?

MASER stands for Microwave Amplification by Stimulation Emission of Radiation.

A LASER is a MASER that works with higher frequency photons in the ultraviolet or visible light spectrum (photons are bundles of electromagnetic energy commonly thought of as "rays of light" which travel in oscillating waves of various wavelengths).

The first papers about the MASER were published in 1954 as a result of investigations carried out simultaneously and independently by Charles Townes and co-workers at Columbia University in New York and by Dr. Basov and Dr. Prochorov at the Lebedev Institute in Moscow. All three of these gentlemen received the Nobel Prize in 1964 for their contributions to science.

[The following was paraphrased in part from Halliday & Resnick's "Fundamentals of Physics", second edition.]

The fundamental physical principle motivating the MASER is the concept of stimulated emission, first introduced by Einstein in 1917. Before defining it we look at two related but more familiar phenomena involving the interplay between matter and radiation, absorption and spontaneous emission.

Absorption. According to quantum mechanics, absorption of photons by atoms occurs only if the wavelength of the photon is just the right size (say, of wavelength l). If it is, the atom will "absorb" it (the photon vanishes) and go to a higher energy state. In physics, this process is called "absorption."

Spontaneous Emission. Atoms don't like to stay in high energy states (this is dictated by the laws of thermodynamics), so after absorbing a photon and going to a higher energy state, they will move of their own accord to a lower energy state, emitting a photon in the process. This is called "spontaneous emission" because no outside influence triggers the emission. Normally the average lifetime for spontaneous emissions by excited atoms is around 10-8 seconds (that is, the atom or molecule will usually take around 10-8 seconds before emitting the photon). Occasionally, however, there are states for which the lifetime is much longer, perhaps around 10-3 seconds. These states are called metastable. Metastable emission levels are essential for a working MASER and will be discussed further in a moment.

Now that we've discussed absorption and spontaneous emission, we can get to stimulated emission (a MASER beam is made up entirely of stimulated emission).

Stimulated Emission. With stimulated emission, a photon of the absorption wavelength, l , is fired at an atom already in its high energy state from prior absorption. The atom absorbs this photon, and then quickly emits two photons to get back to its lower energy state. Thanks to quantum mechanics, both of these newly emitted photons are of wavelength l! The following figure displays this concept in detail:

MASER. In each frame, a molecule in the upper level of the MASER transition (that is, in the high energy, excited state) is indicated by a large red circle, while one in the lower level (low energy state) is indicated by a small blue circle. (a) All of the molecules are in the upper state and a photon of wavelength l (shown in green) is incident from the left. (b) The photon l stimulates emission from the first molecule, so there are now two photons of wavelength l, in phase. (c) These photons stimulate emission from the next two molecules, resulting in four photons of wavelength l. (d) The process continues with another doubling of the number of photons.

Figure courtesy M. L. Kutner, "Astronomy: A Physical Perspective", John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1987

Basically, a man-made MASER is a device that sets up a series of atoms or molecules and excites them to generate the chain reaction, or amplification, of photons. Metastable emission states make MASERs and LASERs possible. To get the proper wavelengths to generate the chain reaction, first electricity or another energy source is "pumped" into a chamber filled with particular atoms or molecules. Then this "pumping" radiation causes the transition of atoms from the ground state to a high energy excited state higher than that referred to in the above paragraphs. From this short-lived state the atoms come down through non-radiative transition to the long-lived metastable state. Once in the metastable state many atoms can be accumulated in one place and in the same state. The LASER or MASER beam, stimulated emission, arises when all these accumulated atoms simultaneously make a transition to the ground state, releasing their energy of wavelength l, creating a beam of microwave radiation (or visible light in the case of a LASER) which can be sent on to other atoms to cause the chain reaction described in the above figure. Since all the resulting photons are the same wavelength, MASER beams are extremely focussed and coherent. MASERs and their shorter-wavelength counterparts (LASERs), have many practical applications, especially in science and medicine.

Naturally occurring MASERs have been discovered in interstellar space. For more information about MASERs in space, check out this site for a discussion of astrophysical MASERs.

Rice-sized laser, powered one electron at a time, bodes well for quantum computing

Princeton University researchers have built a rice grain-sized laser powered by single electrons tunneling through artificial atoms known as quantum dots. The tiny microwave laser, or "maser," is a demonstration of the fundamental interactions between light and moving electrons. The device demonstrates a major step forward for efforts to build quantum-computing systems out of semiconductor materials, according to co-author and collaborator Jacob Taylor, an adjunct assistant professor at the Joint Quantum Institute, University of Maryland-National Institute of Standards and Technology. "I consider this to be a really important result for our long-term goal, which is entanglement between quantum bits in semiconductor-based devices," Taylor said.

The original aim of the project was not to build a maser, but to explore how to use double quantum dots — which are two quantum dots joined together — as quantum bits, or qubits, the basic units of information in quantum computers.

Yinyu Liu, first author of the study and a graduate student in Princeton's Department of Physics, holds a prototype of the device. (Photo by Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research) 

"The goal was to get the double quantum dots to communicate with each other," said Yinyu Liu, a physics graduate student in Petta's lab. The team also included graduate student Jiri Stehlik and associate research scholar Christopher Eichler in Princeton's Department of Physics, as well as postdoctoral researcher Michael Gullans of the Joint Quantum Institute.
Because quantum dots can communicate through the entanglement of light particles, or photons, the researchers designed dots that emit photons when single electrons leap from a higher energy level to a lower energy level to cross the double dot.

Each double quantum dot can only transfer one electron at a time, Petta explained. "It is like a line of people crossing a wide stream by leaping onto a rock so small that it can only hold one person," he said. "They are forced to cross the stream one at a time. These double quantum dots are zero-dimensional as far as the electrons are concerned — they are trapped in all three spatial dimensions."

When the power (P) is turned on, single electrons (small arrows) begin to flow through the two double quantum dots (Left DQD and Right DQD) from the drain (D) to the source (S). As the electrons move from the higher energy level to the lower energy level, they give off particles of light in the microwave region of the spectrum. These microwaves bounce off mirrors on either side of the cavity (k-in and k-out) to produce the maser's beam. (Photo courtesy of Science/AAAS)

The researchers fabricated the double quantum dots from extremely thin nanowires (about 50 nanometers, or a billionth of a meter, in diameter) made of a semiconductor material called indium arsenide. They patterned the indium arsenide wires over other even smaller metal wires that act as gate electrodes, which control the energy levels in the dots.

To construct the maser, they placed the two double dots about 6 millimeters apart in a cavity made of a superconducting material, niobium, which requires a temperature near absolute zero, around minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit. "This is the first time that the team at Princeton has demonstrated that there is a connection between two double quantum dots separated by nearly a centimeter, a substantial distance," Taylor said.

When the device was switched on, electrons flowed single-file through each double quantum dot, causing them to emit photons in the microwave region of the spectrum. These photons then bounced off mirrors at each end of the cavity to build into a coherent beam of microwave light.

One advantage of the new maser is that the energy levels inside the dots can be fine-tuned to produce light at other frequencies, which cannot be done with other semiconductor lasers in which the frequency is fixed during manufacturing, Petta said. The larger the energy difference between the two levels, the higher the frequency of light emitted.

A double quantum dot as imaged by a scanning electron microscope. Current flows one electron at a time through two quantum dots (red circles) that are formed in an indium arsenide nanowire. (Photo courtesy of Science/AAAS) 

Claire Gmachl, who was not involved in the research and is Princeton's Eugene Higgins Professor of Electrical Engineering and a pioneer in the field of semiconductor lasers, said that because lasers, masers and other forms of coherent light sources are used in communications, sensing, medicine and many other aspects of modern life, the study is an important one.

"In this paper the researchers dig down deep into the fundamental interaction between light and the moving electron," Gmachl said. "The double quantum dot allows them full control over the motion of even a single electron, and in return they show how the coherent microwave field is created and amplified. Learning to control these fundamental light-matter interaction processes will help in the future development of light sources."

The paper, "Semiconductor double quantum dot micromaser," was published in the journal Science on Jan. 16, 2015. The research was supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the National Science Foundation (DMR-1409556 and DMR-1420541), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency QuEST (HR0011-09-1-0007), and the Army Research Office (W911NF-08-1-0189).

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