The Future Of Lasers Is On The Beam

May 17, 2010
Chipmaker Intel believes that in the future, lasers could be used to develop extremely fast communications systems when integrated with silicon photonics.

Most everyone is familiar with lasers in someway or another, be it Darth Vader’s light sword or lasers used by surgeons to perform intricate operations on, say, the eye retina. And, no doubt, tremendous progress has been made in laser technology. Still, technologists have hailed its 50th birthday as just the beginning of what this technology can achieve.

The practical uses of the laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) started around 40 years ago with a system developed to read barcodes on packets of chewing gum. Now, lasers are found in all kinds of industrial, research, medical, and home applications.

But is it really only the beginning for lasers? Chipmaker Intel believes that in the future, lasers could be used to develop extremely fast communications systems when integrated with silicon photonics.

Using silicon for an optical device does have a major drawback—it’s really a very poor light emitter; thus, it can’t be used to make an electrically pumped laser. Therefore, lasers have to be fabricated on a separate III-V semiconductor wafer before being individually aligned to each silicon device. The problems, though, are that it’s an expensive process and it limits the number of lasers that can be used on a silicon photonic circuit.

However, by employing a wafer-bonding technique, many hybrid silicon lasers can be fabricated simultaneously on a silicon wafer—all aligned to the silicon photonic devices. Potential applications include fabricating hundreds of hybrid silicon lasers on a die and using silicon photonics to combine them to form super-fast optical communication systems.


Lasers may also be a key player in future energy plans. For example, they could detect changes in the wind to ensure wind turbines are positioned to capture as much power as possible, or perhaps be part of laser-activated fusion that could become an energy source.

Eugene Arthurs, executive director of SPIE, an association for advancing light technology, commented: “Laser applications abound, and it would take volumes to describe them. I don't think I am atypical, with maybe 10 lasers in my home, in multiple CD and DVD players, and computer CD and DVD read/write drives. Of course, I wouldn't have these lasers or the newer devices but for the laser lithography used to fabricate the highest density silicon circuits.

“Lasers are well established in many manufacturing technologies, for precision delivery of intense power for scribing, cutting welding, and for precise 2D and 3D metrology. The many thousands of less powerful—but precise—lasers cutting fabrics, making patterns in glass blocks, customizing trophies and so on, really show how the laser has moved from technical marvel to common tool. Lasers in hospitals, dermatological suites, dental surgeries, and eye clinics benefit many, day in, day out. I'm not so sure about the laser comb for hair stimulation, but the laser beard sculpting available in New York supposedly works—as it should for $150.”

Arthurs believes that lasers will fulfill their promise in the field of analytical chemistry, and will become increasingly prolific in diagnostic medicine. The future world of pharmagenomics will also rely on lasers for genetic typing.

There are, of course, many ways in which the laser will continue to advance human capability. In many cases, that advancement will be coupled to related breakthroughs in electronics.

When Theodore Mainan enabled the very first laser using a ruby crystal back in 1960 at Hughes Research, he likely had little idea what was to become of his discovery.

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