March 21 (UPI) -- Scientists have built the world's first continuous room-temperature solid-state maser.
Maser stands for "microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation." The device is the older sibling of the laser and operates at microwave frequencies. But while masers came first, the technology never caught on like the laser. That's mostly because masers require temperatures approaching absolute zero to function.
Now, scientists have designed a maser that works at room temperature.
In 2012, researchers shot laser pulses at room temperature using the organic molecule pentacene. The maser was unable to work continuously, however, as the radiation would have melted the crystal molecules.
The new and improved maser uses a different material, a synthetic diamond grown in a nitrogen-rich atmosphere.
"This breakthrough paves the way for the widespread adoption of masers and opens the door for a wide array of applications that we are keen to explore," Jonathan Breeze, a material scientist at Imperial College London, said in a news release. "We hope the maser will now enjoy as much success as the laser."
Scientists used a high-energy electron beam to knock carbon atoms out of the synthetic diamond, leaving behind tiny vacancies in the diamond's atomic structure. When the diamond is heated, the nitrogen atoms and carbon vacancies pair off, coupling to form what are called nitrogen-vacancy defect centers.
When the diamond is placed inside a sapphire ring and blasted with green laser light, the material produces continuous maser light -- all at room temperature.
Traditionally, masers are deployed in deep space communication and radio astronomy technologies, but the latest breakthrough -- detailed in the journal Nature -- could allow for the use of masers in medical imaging, bomb detection and quantum computing.
"This technology has a way to go, but I can see it being used where sensitive detection of microwaves is essential," said Neil Alford, a professor of material science at ICL.