Lasers and communications

Lasers can generate extreme pressures and temperatures and so can be used to ignite nuclear fusion – the same process that powers our sun. Scientists are also exploiting lasers in the development of solar cells

Lasers can generate extreme pressures and temperatures and so can be used to ignite nuclear fusion – the same process that powers our sun. Scientists are also exploiting lasers in the development of solar cells

Key facts

Fibre Optics

Lasers have revolutionised the way in which we communicated and are largely responsible for the advent of the information age

Central to this new age of information transfer is the network of fibre optics that comprise the core of long-distance telephone communications and the internet. These networks rely on transmitting information through glass or plastic fibres via pulses of laser light. The light pulses are converted at their destination into electrical signals that provide the information.

Fibre optical systems are rapidly replacing the pre-existing copper-wire networks. Their flexibility, lower cost, higher efficiency, clearer signal and increased capacity (to carry thousands of times the amount of information that copper wires can), make them a superior option for the telecommunications industry

A new type of laser actually based on specialised optical fibres is expected to have a range of important applications including biomedical microscopy and analysis, and quantum-information processing.

Smart materials

'Smart' materials possess properties that can be significantly changed by external stimuli. Examples of these properties include stress, temperature, moisture, pH and electric or magnetic fields

Laser-enabled fibre-optic sensors that are sensitive to movement can be embedded into certain structures as monitoring tools - for example, in the rotor blades of wind turbines, aeroplane and spacecraft structures, and bridges. They can inform of any structural changes or impending structural failure

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Information and communications technology

Because they can carry large volumes of information as pulses, lasers have been exploited extensively across the ICT industry. Examples of areas where lasers are employed include

Optical storage

Lasers read and write information encoded as microscopic 'pits' on CDs, DVDs, Blu-Ray and other storage media.

Communication

Laser-diode coupled fibre optics are being rolled out as the backbone of the high-speed internet, transforming the way in which we interact with each other and access high volume media such as movies, games and business information.

Increasing microprocessor speed

Micro-lasers could provide a high-speed alternative to transistors. Optical signals can be used to connect integrated circuits at light speed, as well as providing the basis for a new generation of holographic memory

Seeing stars more clearly

As light from distant stars and galaxies passes through the earth's turbulent atmospheric layers, it becomes distorted. Astronomers have long sought to diminish these atmospheric effects so that ground-based observations can become clearer and more precise.

One solution, which is becoming increasingly employed by astronomers, is to create an artificial guide star by shining a laser into the atmosphere. Atmospheric turbulence and changes in temperature cause the image of this laser on the sky to distort in a random fashion, it is also what makes stars appear to twinkle in the night sky. Astronomers can utilise a system of adaptive optics to measure the distortions of this laser image and correct for any aberrations or deviations. By rapidly changing the surface of a deformable mirror via a computer system, these deviations can be compensated for, resulting in clearer astronomical images. Many of the world's largest telescopes now use an artificial guide star in the form of a laser, which can be conveniently directed up into the sky.

The same adaptive optics technology is also applied to laser communications systems, such as the fibre optics network, to improve performance and efficiency.

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Lasers Homepage

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000