Thanks to its frequency comb properties, a small laser could make it big. Credit: Andreas Hugi/ETH Zurich

Cutting light with a comb

December 14, 2012 by Fabio Bergamin

(—Quantum physicists from ETH Zurich have discovered special properties in a laser, thanks to which portable devices can be built to analyse gases and liquids accurately and reliably in the future.

Imagine a small, handy measuring device which environmental officers at an industrial plant can use to monitor their production facility’s wastewater; a device that analyses the contaminants dissolved in the water in seconds and sounds the alarm if the concentration is above the safety limit. Or imagine a portable device that an airport’s security force can use to analyse the air in the event of a terrorist threat. The apparatus would even be capable of recognising minute traces of poison gas reliably. Analytic devices with these functions exist on a large scale in specialist labs. “However, there are hardly any portable versions of them,” says Andreas Hugi, a doctoral student from ETH Zurich. “And they mostly have mobile mechanical elements, thus the accuracy and reliability suffers.”

Together with his colleagues from the group of Jérôme Faist, professor of quantum electronics, Hugi has now discovered special properties in a very small, broadband laser, thanks to which it should be possible to build small, yet accurate, analysis devices – so-called spectrometers – with such lasers in the future.

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