National Physical Laboratory

The maser coreRoom-temperature Maser

In 2012, scientists from NPL and Imperial College London demonstrated the first solid-state maser capable of operating at room temperature, paving the way for its wider adoption. This was named as one of Physics World's top 10 breakthroughs for 2012.


What is a maser?

The word 'maser' is derived from the acronym MASER (Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation). Devices based on this process and known as masers were developed by scientists more than 50 years ago, even before the first lasers were invented. Instead of creating intense beams of light, as lasers do, masers deliver a concentrated beam of microwaves.

How do they work?

Conventional masers work by amplifying microwaves using crystals such as ruby - this process is known as 'masing'. However, the maser has had little technological impact compared to the laser because getting it to work has always required extreme conditions that are difficult to produce; either extremely low pressures or temperatures close to absolute zero. To make matters worse, it is also often necessary to apply strong magnetic fields using large magnets.

How is the new maser different?

The NPL and Imperial College London maser uses a completely different type of crystal, namely p-terphenyl doped with pentacene, to replace replace ruby and replicate the same masing process at room temperature and with no applied magnetic field. This means that the cost to manufacture and operate masers could be dramatically reduced, which could lead to them becoming as widely used as laser technology is today.

What are the potential applications?

Room-temperature masers could be used to make more sensitive medical instruments for scanning patients, improved chemical sensors for remotely detecting explosives, lower-noise read-out mechanisms for quantum computers and better radio telescopes for potentially detecting life on other planets.

A physics breakthrough

The maser research was one of Physics World's top 10 breakthroughs for 2012. Criteria for judging the top 10 included: fundamental importance of research, significant advance in knowledge, strong connection between theory and experiment and general interest to all physicists.

"Solid-state masers are extremely sensitive microwave detectors and could therefore be used in a wide range of telecommunications and imaging applications. Until now, however, masers have needed to be chilled to extremely low temperatures using liquid helium in order to work - making them impractical for most commercial applications. This could all change thanks to Mark Oxborrow, Jonathan Breeze and Neil Alford, who have developed the first maser to operate at room temperature."

Announcement in Physics World


The maser research was originally published in Nature on 16 August 2012

Read the NPL press release

Find out more about NPL's work on Quantum Detection

Video

Dr Mark Oxborrow discusses the maser.

 

For half a century the maser has been the forgotten, inconvenient cousin of the laser. Our design breakthrough will enable masers to be used by industry and consumers.

Dr Mark Oxborrow
Co-author of the study at NPL

 

Lecture

Dr Mark Oxborrow's maser lecture at NPL.