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Greenlight Optics
An Inside Look at the Maser
Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Over the summer, our blog was all about the laser. While the laser has some of its foundation built on its early relative, the maser (or microwave amplification stimulated by emission of radiation) actually has its own invention story. Read on to learn more about the maser and how it paved way for the “optical maser.”

Operating under the same basic principle as the laser, the maser had its theoretical foundations first noted in Albert Einstein’s paper “On the Quantum Theory of Radiation,” which was written in 1917. But the theoretical principles of the operation of the maser weren’t discussed until 1952. Nikolay Basov and Alexander Prokhorov, both Soviet physicists, described the principles of the operation of the device at an All-Union Conference on Radio-Spectroscopy, and then published the results in 1954. While these two physicists were making their own discoveries, across the world American physicists Charles Hard Townes, James P. Gordon and H.J. Zeiger built the first ammonia maser in 1953. Thus began the growth of this device.

Columbia University was the location at which the first ammonia maser was created. Townes was later awarded the patent for the maser and the three men explained that their device used energized ammonia for the stimulated emission in order to produce amplification of microwaves. The maser is based on the foundations Einstein described, which is that of stimulated emission. Having been stimulated into an excited energy state, atoms can amplify radiation at an individual frequency. While the output on the first ammonia maser was less than one microwatt, its wavelength was so constant that it could control a clock. The clock being controlled by the ammonia maser would lose or gain only one second in several hundred years. 

Because of the research and development and thus invention of the maser, Charles Hard Townes, Nikolay Basov, and Alexander Prokhorov were all awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1964. The primary function of the maser is a high precision frequency reference. However, they can be used in other ways, such as a form of atomic clocks and low-noise microwave amplifiers in radio telescopes. The ammonia maser is still a commonly used maser today, but there are also other forms of masers, such as hydrogen masers, rubidium masers, ruby masers and dual noble gas masers.

Among the contributions the maser gave to modern science was paving the way for the laser. Having proposed the idea to Townes, American physicist Gordon Gould proposed to use optical pumping to excite a maser. While Theodore Maiman is also credited with inventing the laser, Townes listened to Gould’s proposition and gave Gould advice on how to obtain a patent for his invention.

With a variety of uses, the maser is still in wide use today. Different components have different purposes. The principle of the maser extends to include more devices and a wider range of frequencies. Masers are currently being considered for use in communications and space exploration.


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