ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Lasers are incredibly useful. Think of your CD player or the supermarket checkout scanner. And some lasers are so small, they can fit on a computer chip. But those lasers look huge next to the latest development.
As NPR's Richard Harris reports, scientists say that they have built the world's smallest laser. And that it opens up all sorts of new possibilities.
RICHARD HARRIS: Conventional wisdom has it that lasers can only be miniaturized so far. That's because to create a laser beam, a light literally bounces around inside of a chamber. And since a light wave has a certain length, it essentially needs room to turn around. But six years ago, Mark Stockman at Georgia State University started thinking outside the box.
Dr. MARK STOCKMAN (Georgia State University): I got an idea to create a laser whose size is not limited to conventional limitation of laser.
HARRIS: Stockman realized that a rapidly vibrating electron, sitting on the surface of a tiny piece of metal, could actually produce laser light.
Dr. STOCKMAN: This is a nano-pendulum, basically. It can be confined to almost any small place.
HARRIS: In 2003, Stockman issued a challenge to the growing field of nanotechnology: figure out how to build these vibrating electrons, or nano-pendulums, in real life. They're called plasmons, by the way. Many research groups took up the challenge. And in the past few months, three have declared victory. One is a team that includes Mikhail Noginov at Norfolk State University. They made a laser out of a bead of gold that's so small you can't even see it under the microscope. It's just 44 nanometers across.
Dr. MIKHAIL NOGINOV (Norfolk State University): For the comparison, the thickness of the human hair is 50 micrometers. So our device is about 1,000 times smaller than that.
HARRIS: Now, Noginov didn't just build the world's smallest laser for bragging rights. Lasers on this scale can produce tiny light sources, which in turn can help scientists capture images of tiny things we really care about, like the molecules inside our bodies. But the biggest potential here may be a new generation of computers. They could be 1,000 times faster than computers today. But, of course, they have to be wired into a circuit.
Dr. NOGINOV: If you want to use it in electronics, you want to attach it with wires to the rest of the circuit.
HARRIS: And that's the challenge. It's not so easy to accomplish using Noginov's free-floating bead of gold. But other research groups are hot on that trail. One is in the Netherlands. Another is at the University of California at Berkeley. Xiang Zhang at Cal is author of a new paper "In Nature." His group's current nano-laser can, in theory, be put right onto a computer chip.
Dr. XIANG ZHANG (University of California at Berkeley): All the processes we are using here is already used in the semiconductor manufacturing. So I would not think it will take too long to reach real application, maybe a few years.
HARRIS: And those real applications could include future generations of computer storage. Impressed they can already cram a whole movie onto a DVD? Those are burned with today's lasers. Zhang says there's plenty of room for improvement.
Dr. ZHANG: For example, you can use this to make very high density DVD recorders. You may be able to store the whole library into a one disc.
HARRIS: An entire library on a disc.
Dr. ZHANG: Right.
Dr. ZHANG: That's a possibility.
HARRIS: Of course, the most exciting thing about new technologies is you never know where they will lead.
Richard Harris, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.