Lasers and Their Future Potential Use
Issue 15, Volume 112
By Seth Fenton
Ever since the first laser was invented in 1960, it has been a technology with enormous potential. A laser is a device that emits and amplifies light waves. They can be utilized for various purposes, including flexible manufacturing, energy generation, and military purposes. While their use in sci-fi has made people overlook their practical applications, they are very important in solving the problems that face our nation and species.
Lasers are a go-to technology with various uses in the manufacturing sector. For instance, they’re used for imprinting unique identification numbers on products, creating patterned microstructures, drilling incredibly small holes, and welding.
Generally, lasers are utilized to help manufacturing systems react to unexpected changes and, in conjunction with other manufacturing processes, enhance their efficiency and speed. As a result, companies can spend less and produce more, promoting economic growth and driving down the cost of goods. Scientists are continuously expanding the applications of lasers to make manufacturing processes more efficient.
64 percent of the world's energy still comes from fossil fuels, but two promising energy sources are nuclear fission and geothermal energy. Both of these sources are relatively reliable and can be improved immensely with lasers.
Nuclear fission is an energy production method relying on the splitting of atoms to release substantial amounts of energy. The improvement to nuclear fission is nuclear fusion. This is a much more experimental technology than deeper drilling but it also has greater potential. Lasers are used to induce the high temperatures necessary for atoms, specifically atoms with low atomic numbers, to fuse. This produces massive amounts of energy and is the process that powers stars, including our sun. Fusion also doesn’t produce any particularly long-lasting radioactive waste like its fission counterpart. Both of these energy-producing techniques could help counteract climate change, bringing our species into a greener future.
For nuclear fusion, the JET nuclear reactor is a prototype for the much larger ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) reactor currently being built. The ITER is going to be the most advanced nuclear fusion reactor in history and should be capable of sustained powerful fusion reactions. JET recently nearly hit ignition, the point where more energy is produced than put in, and sustained a reaction for five seconds. The more impressive thing, though, was that it produced 59 megajoules of energy, which is enough to power a house for a day. That is the most energy ever produced with a fusion reaction and a massive leap from prior fusion technology.
On the other hand, geothermal is a type of energy production that taps into the Earth's stored heat. For geothermal energy, high-powered lasers and mechanical drilling are used to drill incredibly deep holes in order to extract energy. The laser-aided geothermal drilling methods are mostly being tested by an MIT spinoff called Quaise. They claim their new drilling platform can drill up to 20 kilometers. While that claim is somewhat dubious, it is nevertheless a promising invention.
The US military, the current global leader in laser weapons, is focusing on lasers for much of its new weapons development, especially for missile and drone defense. In tests, they’ve shot down both a drone and a cruise missile, the former with an entirely electronic laser. At this point, they are mainly ship or surface-mounted and will probably remain that way for at least the next year. While the US would love to mount such a weapon on a fighter jet, there remain significant challenges. As of now, the energy a laser would take to do significant damage can’t be produced within the small space of a fighter jet. However, even without significant damage capability, the lasers that can be attached to planes are incredibly covert and are able to deliver silent and invisible strikes at long range.
Lasers have incredible potential in a wide variety of industries. They serve a significant role in manufacturing, energy production, and advanced military technology. There are several obstacles to laser development, including the sheer amount of energy a powerful one takes to generate and the difficulty of controlling a high-powered one. Nevertheless, they will certainly be an influential part of our species’ future.