Dark Pulse Laser emits trillionths-of-a-second bursts of nothing


June 12, 2010

Colorized trace of pulses from the NIST/JILA dark pulse laser, indicating the light output nearly shuts down about every 2.5 nanoseconds (Image: NIST)

Colorized trace of pulses from the NIST/JILA dark pulse laser, indicating the light output nearly shuts down about every 2.5 nanoseconds (Image: NIST)

OK, you’re right, it 's impossible to actually beam “nothing” across a room. It is, however, possible to beam light across a room, sending information in the form of extremely short dips in that light. That’s what America’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has been doing with its dark pulse laser. Whereas regular lasers transmit information by using darkness as a zero point and light pulses as data, this one uses light as a zero point, with darkness as the data.

The first question, of course, is “Why?”. For starters, the dark pulses are stunningly short - just 90 picoseconds (trillionths of a second), which could be useful for measuring very short timescales. Also, unlike light pulses, they are not subject to distortion. This could make them well-suited to signal processing.

So, why can’t the researchers just use a regular laser, and simply get it to pulse off instead of on? It’s all about the qdots. The dark pulse laser contains millions of 10-nanometer-wide quantum dots, which are made from semiconductor materials produced at NIST. When an electrical current is sent into the laser, the qdots all emit infrared light, which is then amplified by the current. Due the unusual energy-recovery dynamics of the qdots, they are able to stabilize dark pulses in a way not possible with other light sources.

NIST collaborated on the project with the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA) from the University of Colorado, Boulder. The team is now considering the use of semiconductor lasers, of which the dark pulse is one, in advanced applications such as atomic clocks.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

This is a case where the answer to the why question is simply: because we can. It\'s simply trying to find a way to make quantum dots useful or finding new ways to make lasers. I\'m not trying to say there is no value in doing this, but the reasons mentioned in this review article are both simply wrong.

First of all, 90 ps is in no way short compared to other optical pulses which are now common in commercial off-the-shelf lasers.

Second, a pulse of \'nothing\' will exhibit the same distortions as a pulse of light. The trick is that it is the edges of the laser signal which will distort and spread out to distort the \'nothing\'.


Thanks jddes, I tend to agree with your prognosis. If there is distortion in the light, there must be corresponding distortion in the dark at the light/dark interface. If not then WTF?

Here is a link to a laser claiming to run @10ps (a little faster to 90ps)

Terry Penrose


Daniel Plata Baca

With a scanner type cosmic ray adapter these techniques can be integrated for permanent space vehicle or unmanned satellite propulsion as well as inter-dimensional drive engines or technologies of an infinite type and scale for extra-dimensional devices on earth or any planet

Anton McInerney
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