Quantum leap for lasers

The European Commission has awarded a research grant of £8m to a consortium of universities and companies to develop a new generation of smaller and cheaper biomedical lasers.

Dundee University is leading the FAST-DOT project, which brings together 18 partners across Europe, including Philips and Alcatel Thales, to make the lasers using quantum dots.

‘The objectives of the project are to use a technology called quantum dot materials, probably gallium arsenide, and exploit their lasing characteristics for use in biomedical applications, such as laser tweezing for microsurgery,’ said Neil Stewart, FAST-DOT project manager.

The researchers will explore properties of the quantum materials such as ultra-fast pulse rates and their tuneability — meaning that the wavelength of the emission from the laser can be tweaked to go through an entire spectrum of wavelengths.

Current lasers are at least the size of a shoebox and cost between £50,000 and £100,000. The FAST-DOT project plans to bring the size down to that of a matchbox and the cost to between £5,000 and £10,000.

Stewart claimed that existing lasers used in microsurgery are capable of making cuts in cells the size of 200 to 300 microns, but the new laser would have the capability to make even smaller incisions.

‘With these lasers we ought to be able to take that down to about a very few microns. And because of the differences in the way the energy is controlled, it enables us to deliver very controlled amounts of energy so we are also going to be investigating things like tissue welding,’ he said.

The main challenge for the researchers will be to develop a quantum dot laser that can be electrically, rather than optically, pumped to increase efficiency.

Anh Nguyen