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September 9th, 2009
Laser beams are about to get a whole lot more precise. Independent teams have found ways to shrink lasers to nanoscale dimensions in two radically different ways; one creating a spherical laser device 44 nanometres in diameter, while the other can concentrate laser light into a gap just 5 nm across.
Sources of electromagnetic waves cannot normally focus a beam to a size smaller than half its wavelength. For the spectrum of visible light, that's 190 to 350 nm.
To go smaller, the teams used quasiparticles called surface plasmons - fluctuations in the density of electrons on a metal surface - which can absorb light, travel along the surface and re-emit that energy. They are much smaller than the wavelength of visible light, so it's possible to sustain a laser in a smaller area.
The trick to using them in a laser is to couple them with a medium which can amplify their light.
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