What happens when physicists decide that their lab is too small? Some start to fire powerful lasers down the corridor in the middle of the night.
This wasn’t just a bunch of undergraduates playing laser skirmish when they got bored.
The US researchers had been investigating “optical guiding”: a method of directing light through air, which could be used for long-range laser communication.
They’d shown that this works over distances smaller than a metre, but they couldn’t expand their reach because their lab was too small, and the extremely powerful laser they used couldn’t be easily moved.
Their solution? Make a hole in the wall and fire the laser into the 50-metre long hallway.
“There were major challenges: the huge scale-up to 50 metres forced us to reconsider the fundamental physics of air waveguide generation, plus wanting to send a high-power laser down a 50-meter-long public hallway naturally triggers major safety issues,” says Professor Howard Milchberg, a physicist at the University of Maryland, US.
“Fortunately, we got excellent cooperation from both the Physics (Department) and from the Maryland environmental safety office!”
This is important, because the laser is powerful enough to burn paper and skin.
The researchers did their work at night, so they could block off the corridor with minimal inconvenience to their co-inhabitants.
“It was a really unique experience,” says Andrew Goffin, an electrical and computer engineering graduate student at the University of Maryland.
“There’s a lot of work that goes into shooting lasers outside the lab that you don’t have to deal with when you’re in the lab – like putting up curtains for eye safety. It was definitely tiring.”
After several nights of testing, the researchers found their waveguide technique could conserve roughly 20% of the light that would normally be dissipated through the air. With more testing, they believe they can make the guide more efficient.
“If we had a longer hallway, our results show that we could have adjusted the laser for a longer waveguide,” says physics graduate student Andrew Tartaro.
“Based on new lasers we are soon to get, we have the recipe to extend our guides to one kilometer and beyond,” says Milchberg.
A paper describing their experiment has been accepted by Physical Review X.
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.