Lasers long ago went from wunderkinds to workhorses of the modern world, useful in everything from surgery to surveying. In 1996, new materials and designs lit up the field on several fronts, and could make lasers even more versatile in applications ranging from home electronics to ultraprecise research measurements.
Early this year, lasermakers reached one long-sought milestone, developing blue-light lasers from semiconductor chips made from gallium-nitride; these devices are rapidly improving in longevity and may prove more durable than previous blue-light emitters. The shorter wavelength of these lasers may one day help audio compact discs and computer CD-ROMs store up to four times as much data as do current devices.
Also this year, researchers developed the first arrays of semiconductor “quantum dot” lasers, in which light is emitted by a multitude of tiny semiconductor grains. Others managed to coax the first laserlike light emission from plastics. And 1996 also saw the first critical steps toward a brand-new kind of laser, as researchers began to transform last year's breakthrough winner—a cloud of supercooled atoms called a Bose-Einstein condensate—into a laser that fires beams of coherent atoms instead of light. For lasers, 1996 was a bright year indeed.
R. F. Service, “Plastics May Add New Colors to Lasers' Light Show,” Science, 27 September 1996, p. 1800.
G. Fasol, “Room-Temperature Blue Gallium Nitride Laser Diode,” Science, 21 June 1996, p. 1751.
S. Fafard et al., “Red-Emitting Semiconductor Quantum Dot Lasers,” Science, 22 November 1996, p. 1350.
R. F. Service, “Small Clusters Hit the Big Time,” Science, 16 February 1996, p. 920.
G. Taubes, “Bose-Einstein Condensates Display Their First Tricks,” Science, 14 June 1996, p. 1587.