U.S. Army News Service
A laser system is tested at the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Starfire Optical Range in New Mexico.
Lasers may bring to mind military-grade weaponry or the pew-pew sounds of science fiction blasters, but powerful laser tech can be used for less destructive purposes. Scientists and engineers are now aiming lasers at persistent problems like air turbulence, inoperable tumors and drug addiction. Here's a look at the ways zapping something with a beam of light can actually help rather than hurt.
J.P. Wolf / University of Geneva
Scientists -- and super villains -- have long wanted to control the weather with technology. What once seemed like a wild dream has become possible in theory. In late 2013, the World Meteorological Organization conference in Geneva held a Laser, Weather and Climate conference where participants discussed controlling lightning and condensation with laser assists.
More recently researchers at the University of Florida and the University of Arizona surrounded one laser beam with another, a technique they think could help a high-energy beam go greater distances.
In 2010, neurosurgeons from Washington University were among the first in the United States to use a laser probe on brain tumors thought to be inoperable. The team, led by chief of neurosurgery Ralph G. Dacey Jr., employed the new MRI-guided probe from Monteris Medical to kill cancer cells deep in a patient’s brain, leaving the surrounding tissue intact. Last year the laser probe, called the NeuroBlate Thermal Therapy System, was cleared by the Food and Drug Administration.
Laser beams could be the key to getting hearts beating correctly, an alternative to current electrode-based pacemakers that can do damage to heart muscle over the long-term. In 2010, scientists from Case Western University and Vanderbilt University successfully paced a live quail embryo heart with light from an infrared laser.
While we don’t quite have human optical pacemakers yet, a team from the University College London recently made headway with a separate laser-based technique. They’re hoping to create an “optical pacemaker” for the diaphragm that could help patients with motor neuron diseases like ALS breathe independently.
Apira Science Inc.
Apira Science Inc.’s iGrow helmet to combat baldness may not look serious at first, but the company says this low-level laser therapy has been proven effective at stimulating cell activity around weak hair follicles. The helmet interior has red laser and LED light diodes that go to work in multiple weekly sessions over several months.
Apria points to an article in the journal Lasers in Surgery and Medicine that concluded low level laser therapy improved hair counts for men with alopecia compared to a placebo light-up helmet.
B. Chen / NIDA
Could controlling addiction be as easy as flipping a switch? In 2013, scientists from the National Institutes of Health and the University of California were able to turn off compulsive behavior in rats through a combination of genetic engineering and laser light delivered through fiber optic cables. When they turned on a laser light in the brain region responsible for decision-making and impulse control, the compulsive cocaine seeking was gone, according to researcher Antonello Bonci.
While lasers were used for the study, techniques like noninvasive transcranial magnetic stimulation would probably be used for human trials.
Craik Sustainable Living Project, Flickr Creative Commons
A team from Leibniz University Hanover led by biosystems engineering professor Thomas Rath has been working on a way to eradicate pesky weeds with lasers. In 2012 he and his colleagues investigated mid-infrared range lasers as an alternative to herbicides.
A year later Leibniz University engineers shifted their focus and began studying the effects of near-infrared lasers on pests like aphids and whiteflies. They hope the right lase blast will safely kill the pests while leaving the host plants unaffected.
Last summer frequent fliers got a glimmer of hope for smoother travel. Researchers at the German Aerospace Center DLR’s Institute of Atmospheric Physics began testing technology that can detect turbulence, particularly the clear air kind that’s nearly impossible to predict. The device goes onboard a plane and emits short-wave ultraviolet laser radiation along the direction of flight, according to DLR. This reveals fluctuations in air density that indicate turbulence ahead. DRL has been testing the tech on flights in Europe with the goal of extending the detection distance to 20 miles.
lloydabell34, Flickr Creative Commons
Stanford University bioengineering, psychiatry and behavioral science professor Karl Deisseroth is a pioneer in using a technique called optogenetics, which involves genetically modifying neurons so they make a light-sensitive protein. Those cells can then be turned on or off with laser-based light.
Recently a group from University College London led by neurobiologist Linda Greensmith used optogenetics on paralyzed mice. Her group grafted genetically engineered motor neurons onto severed nerves in mice legs. Shining blue light on them restored nerve connectivity, reversing the paralysis.
Since the Golden Age of Science Fiction, stories of future soldiers with laser guns have been among the most enduring tropes in all of genre fiction. And now it looks like fiction is about to become fact.
In a question-and-answer session with lawmakers, U.S. Army representative Mary J. Miller said that American armed forces will be equipped with high-energy laser weapons by the year 2023.
Speaking before the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, Miller said the Army is committed to developing offensive and defensive directed-energy weapons, including high-energy lasers. While some directed-energy systems are already online, like the Navy’s XN1-LaWS program, the military has largely held off on deploying laser weapons.
“Lasers have been promised for a long time, but they’ve never held up and delivered what was asked for, so the operators are rightfully skeptical,” Miller said to lawmakers. However, the Army is currently testing laser weapons in “operational environments” with the goal of delivering reliable directed-energy weapon systems within 10 years.
“We have to make sure the lasers work and do the full set of scopes against the threats we project,” Miller said. “And those threats include the counter-rockets, counter-artillery and counter-mortar as well as [unmanned aerial vehicle] and cruise missile threats.”
Details on the weapons systems are being kept under wraps, but an official from the Air Force said that all branches of the military are developing laser weapons. Many kinds of military aircraft are already fitted with lasers, but they’re used primarily as countermeasures for infrared targeting systems, according to David Walker, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for Science, Technology and Engineering.
You can see the Navy’s LaWS system in action, however. A couple of years back, the Navy publicly posted the video below, showing lasers weapons aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey in San Diego, Calif.