Lasers: past, present and future

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The laser has had a huge impact on every aspect of our lives from high speed internet connection, industrial welding, dentistry, eye treatment, fingerprint detection, shopping barcode scanning and even hair removal.

Fifty years since the creation of the first ruby laser by Theodore Maiman, physicists assert that there is still so much more to discover about future uses.

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[Narrator]

The idea that a scientist like Maiman could invent something without any obvious practical use might appear to some as a waste of time and money. But the laser’s invention has led to several widespread technological developments many of us take for granted. Soon after its first demonstration in 1960, the laser was used to transmit sound and gave proof that Maiman’s device had the potential to change the world. Professor David Hanna is an emeritus professor of optoelectronics at theEPSRC Innovative Manufacturing Research Centre for Photonics.

Professor David Hannah [DH]

Once people learned about the laser, about its existence, every scientist would think what will that do for me and so they would all pile in and say look we can do this, we can do that and so on. So there would be some people saying look we can get such a high intensity we can make a star in the laboratory. Someone else would say, with a very high frequency like that from a laser it means that the communications limitations of information carrying capacity are now suddenly released by a factor of a million. So we can send a million times more information than we could before.

[Narrator]

Today lasers are common place and for most of us their use goes unnoticed.

[DH]

We all have lasers now, we have lasers in the home, we have CD players, DVD players, we have communications via fibre - not coming right into the home but out into the street - that’s all done with lasers. Of course, you’ve probably seen film of laser robots welding together the bodies of cars. The supermarket is full of products which have been marked usually by a laser marker. You will see a laser when you get to the checkout; it’s not powerful enough to be a problem and you can’t cover it up because it has to be put onto the barcode.

[Narrator]

In 1974 a packet of chewing gum became the first product to be brought using a laser driven barcode reader. While in 1982 Billy Joel’s album 52nd Street was the first to be etched onto a CD using a laser. However, the lasers used in medicine have seen some very different applications evolve. Dr Kate Lancaster is from the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s central laser facility in Oxfordshire.

Dr Kate Lancaster [KL]

People’s eyesight has been being improved by lasers for ages. Laser surgery has been around since the mid 80’s, that’s de rigueur. Now there are applications that are being developed called photo dynamic therapy, for example, which is a way of treating cancer with laser photons in conjunction with special chemicals. And so there is a very broad range of applications for lasers in medicine at the moment. Also things like tattoo removal and skin improving cosmetic surgery has been greatly enhanced by lasers.

[Narrator]

As well as medicine, modern lasers form the backbone of information technology and worldwide communications. Today, laser based industries are worth billions of dollars annually. Tim Holt, chief executive of the Institute of Photonics at the University of Strathclyde.

Tim Holt [TH]

The laser business is a seven billion dollar business and it’s enabled all these different products and processes and advances to be made in so many different areas and in 50 years it’s incredible that it has happened so quickly. I can’t think for the next 50 years what advance will be made in the future, but if it goes on the rate it’s going then the world will change completely in the next 50 years because of the laser.

[Narrator]

Of course, whether or not the next 50 years will benefit from our use of lasers is largely dependent on the willingness to fund the research needed. The future is also dependent on other technologies keeping up. In high speed global communications, using lasers only became possible with advances in satellite and microchip technologies.

[DH]

The very first lasers were pretty clunky, large and inefficient and so when you talk about a solution in search of a problem it was really the technology was the problem. If you had a laser that could do something remarkable, but it filled half a room and cost a million dollars it wasn’t going to make a big change to the world. But then when semi conductor lasers came along this is taking a leaf out of micro electronics and so the semi conductor laser is very much analogous to the minute component in an electronic circuit And we all know how that led to a fantastic reduction in cost. When that happened with the laser then it really took off.

[Narrator]

With such a significant reduction in costs the potential of lasers to solve some of the world’s problems especially in the field of energy supply becomes a more realistic proposition. The Vulcan laser based in Oxfordshire is one of the highest intensity lasers in the world and gives those like Dr Kate Lancaster access to some of the best facilities available.

[KL]

We are trying to investigate how to generate miniature styles in the laboratory and when I say miniature style I mean trying to recreate the energy source of the sun which is called fusion and you kind of need really big lasers to do that and there is one facility at the moment in California called the National Ignition Facility. That’s capable of producing, well it will be capable of producing, one star a day. That’s no good for energy production because you actually need to do four stars a second so we a have a project in Europe that will hopefully take the information and then run with it and develop the laser technology that you need to be able to fire these high power lasers four times a second in order to build a power station. So, at the moment we are in a kind of critical phase where we are trying to get some money to do the seven year deep study to try and develop these high repetition diode-pumped solid-state lasers, as they are called, in order to build this facility and hopefully, if all those pieces come together, HiPER will be built around 2025.

[Narrator]

Central then to the success of HiPER is the willingness of European governments to increase the financial support required for research to continue. Research which Kate believes is currently under funded.

[KL]

We need people to sit up and take notice and understand that this relatively small amount of money is a small amount for long-term energy security.

[DH]

I think we have a very good record of funding in this country. The lab where I work, the Optoelectronics Research Centre, received large scale funding from the funding bodies. It has led to things like the erbium doped fibre amplifier. These amplifiers are used in the optical fibre communication system. And funding from theEPSRC went into that work and that’s the sort of thing which really has a long horizon. You need to work on this for many years before it comes to fruition, but it is a great success story, it’s out there powering up the internet.

[Narrator]

With hindsight it’s easy to take for granted the laser’s vast range of applications. But science agrees on one thing, as well as working towards hard and fast uses the pursuit of open scientific exploration is equally valuable just as it was back in 1960.

[TH]

It’s important to keep funding laser research because you don’t know what’s going to come out of it. The possibilities of producing different types of lasers, less expensive lasers, higher efficiency lasers which will open up even more applications is unknown unless you start do the research. It’s a chain you’ve got to put money in at the front end in order to get the money out at the other end.