Scientists at the UK's National Physical Laboratory (NPL) have managed to produce a solid-state maser — a device similar to a laser which uses microwaves instead of light — capable of operating at room temperature, potentially opening the way for a revolution in deep space communication. Masers are currently used to boost radio signals from craft such as NASA's Curiosity rover, but require bulky cooling equipment to ensure that they remain no more than ten degrees Celsius above absolute zero.
Writing in the latest issue of Nature, published today, the researchers are tentative about the practical significance of their work, but the story of the discovery is interesting in itself. Inspired by a 2002 paper from Japan's Kyoto University, scientists from the NPL and Imperial College London cooked up a crystal based on the chemical pentacene — they then used an old medical laser bought on eBay to excite the crystal's molecules, before using a microwave to restore them to their normal state, letting off a stream of identical microwaves in the process.
Intriguingly, the impetus for the discovery reportedly came from an argument between lead researcher Mark Oxborrow and his wife, which ended with him heading to the lab "as a bit of therapy." If only marital strife could be channelled into scientific breakthroughs more often.