Laser beam may one day replace X-rays
This illustration represents an electron being ripped from an atom by a strong laser field.
June 7th, 2012
05:33 PM ET

Laser beam may one day replace X-rays

Researchers at the University of Colorado have made a breakthrough that may one day help doctors detect disease earlier and with more accuracy.

Based on the hypothosesis of Dr. Tenio Popmintchev, researchers have created a laser beam by adding 5,000 photons together. Previously, two photons were typically used to create laser beams. This is the first time so many photons have been successfully added together.

The result is a more efficient and easier to set up X-ray, according to Dr. Margaret Murnane.

"If we can push this further, and we don’t know how far into the X-ray region we can push this technology, there's a chance we can change your doctor or dentist's X-ray device to a laser version." Murnane said.

"The image would be much crisper. It could really get high resolution X-rays so you could detect disease much earlier."

But that is still a while away - possibly around 10 or 20 years guessed Murnane.

In the meantime, the breakthrough sheds light on how heat flows in very small devices, which may allow scientists develop more energy efficient data storage devices, better understanding of solar energy harvesting and better nano electronics, "so your laptop doesn't heat up so fast," Murnane said.

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    January 26, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
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    August 7, 2012 at 4:34 am |
  3. ajay17


    June 12, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  4. Arrell

    Just to be clear, Dr. Murnane and her group do cutting edge science in their field- It is CNN that inexcusably butchered the work and created this travesty of an article.

    Some blame goes to the author of the article, but it is the management at CNN that bears the burden of the guilt... they are the ones that disbanded their professional science reporting staff and replaced them with what one can only assume are high-school interns.

    In a world where serious science issues affect our daily lives, and our future it is inexcusable that CNN shows such contempt for science reporting. They spend more money and bandwidth reporting on Lindsey Lohan's latest farce, or what happened on some TV show than they do on serious science issues.

    I urge people to express their outrage at:

    June 10, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  5. anonymous

    "Previously, two photons were typically used to create laser beams."

    Wow! Just wow!

    June 9, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
  6. Arrell

    That comment has NO place in this discussion.

    June 9, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  7. PaLarry

    Wow- what a poorly written article. I think you need to reassign Sari to something more in his/her skill set, because evidently writing isn't. Same for the editor that allowed this to be published. You may want to interview some of the commenters below as replacements.

    June 9, 2012 at 7:50 am |
  8. Qm

    You should have seen Henry's face when he saw this CNN blurb. Ahh what we must deal with as physicists.

    June 9, 2012 at 3:33 am |
  9. GFB

    I was one of the high energy laser pioneers in the '70s and early '80s ... this article is a great example of 1) why CNN is such a poor excuse for a news organization and 2) what kind of reporting you get from "reporters" who slept thru science class (not to mention never took physics classes). Geeeeesh, way to go CNN!

    June 9, 2012 at 1:59 am |
    • Herby Sagues

      I fully agree. I read the first four paragraphs and found about fifteen errors in them. The article has way more erros than information. A monkey randomly typing on a keyboard would get more scientific accuracy. Shame on CNN for such poorly informed science coverage.

      June 9, 2012 at 4:08 am |
  10. Surely u Jest

    Crisper image – yeah you betcha. Lasers can cook human flesh until it's crisp or pure ash. Not a good idea unless you want to incenerate a wart, mole, or cancerous skin area.

    June 9, 2012 at 1:41 am |
    • Nitrogen

      Please, please, please take a science course.

      June 9, 2012 at 1:50 am |
    • Arrell

      No... what Murnane said was correct- assuming they develop it to the point that it provides enough X-rays for imaging the body...
      As for your claims that "Lasers can cook human flesh until it's crisp or pure ash. Not a good idea unless you want to incenerate a wart, mole, or cancerous skin area" that's ill informed- things like the laser's power, wavelength and pulse duration all go into determining if the effects of a laser will be harmful, or possible even beneficial depending on the application... they use lasers for eye surgery after all...

      June 9, 2012 at 2:00 am |
  11. PhysicsPhD

    Wow, guys, this is pretty awful piece of writing. Even I had to think about this a bit, let alone giving an iota of clarity to a lay person to make this seem worthwhile.

    Confusing article summarized: they're using a theory that generates lasers, expanding on it, to make a focused xray. It would be much clearer than the ones you get now, come from a much smaller unit (xray machines are relatively large vs lasers), run cooler, and also (not mentioned in the article) have less of a dangerous spread to the rest of the body.

    You guys got Sanjay editing the medical articles, maybe it's time to have an actual scientist look at these kinds of articles?

    June 9, 2012 at 12:39 am |
    • Ben

      High harmonic upconversion – it's pretty impressive number of photons, though I'm guessing the efficiency was not too great.

      June 9, 2012 at 3:20 am |
    • bob

      it's funny, because it sounds to me as if you havent the foggiest idea of what you are talking about. to look at the errors in YOUR 'translation':

      this has nothing to do with making a 'focused' x-ray, any em radiation can be focused. this is about making a COHERENT source of x-rays that is highly FOCUSABLE. Such a source of light would allow as much detail to be extracted from an x-ray as limited by the diffraction limit, ie the shorter the wavelength of light, the higher the potential for resolution.

      fundamentally this has nothing to do with making x-ray sources smaller or more energy efficient, x-ray sources of close to 100 kvp can already be shoehorned into a box the size of a shoe box. The advent of semiconductor and semiconductor pumped optical lasers is what has greatly reduced their size and increased the efficiency of lasers. Thats not going to happen in the x-ray region until someone finds a good semiconductor with a bandgap of a few kev or so... 😉

      June 9, 2012 at 3:53 am |
      • James

        You make better sense than this CNN article.

        June 9, 2012 at 6:00 am |
  12. brant watson

    Arrell utterly nailed it. Most of the commenters agree, and they should. Terribly written article. I work with lasers too, and had NO idea how "two photons are required to make a laser beam", until I realized the so-called author meant second harmonic generation. THAT, I understand. HHG is cascading of the SHG process. SHG was predicted theoretically by Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1932, I believe, but wasn't observed until 1961.

    June 9, 2012 at 12:15 am |
  13. Ted Gabriel

    Is this what Chris, Mitch and Kent were working on at Pacific Tech back in the mid 80s?

    June 8, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
  14. svann

    Much like a laser, this article required feedback to gain coherence. 🙂

    June 8, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
    • Arrell


      June 8, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
    • Adool

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      September 13, 2012 at 12:01 am |
  15. E

    "Laser beam may one day replace X-rays"

    Let's dissect the headline. Is the resulting beam still an x-ray, a part of the electromagnetic spectrum? Yes.

    Did the laser beam replace x-rays? No.

    What the scientists at Colorado really do? Develop a more efficient way to make x-ray lasers, or lasers in the x-ray spectrum.

    Forget the content, the headline is blatantly misleading!

    June 8, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
    • Rod C. Venger

      Right. I think that are saying they have a way to more tightly focus an Xray. Piggyback the Xrays onto the laser and give yourself a huge boost in resolution rather than the shotgun approach that current Xray machines use. The best they can do is narrow or widen the beam and "focus" it by having it at the proper distance. In one sense, this would be like a portable CT scanner...the laser would/could very quickly move across your body...think writing words on a wall with a laser in realtime...with a very narrow Xray beam alongside the laser. One could also think of it in terms of a phased array radar system. I'm not at all sure why they think it'll be 10-20 years down the road though. The only thing that distinguishes a red or green laser (or invisible CO2 laser) from an Xray is the frequency and energy required to penetrate the body.

      June 8, 2012 at 11:12 pm |
  16. Arrell

    Ok- CNN _REALLY_ needs to hire a science writer... This article is asinine and completely incomprehensible- ESPECIALLY incomprehensible to anyone that knows anything about lasers.

    My degree is in physics, and the ONLY reason I was able to guess what this article might be about is that I am familiar with Murnane's work... had this article not included her name I would be completely in the dark about what this article was about.

    I suspect this is about her work in High Harmonic Generation... High Harmonic Generation (HHG) is where an intense laser is converted by a nonlinear process into light with a higher frequency. If you have seen a green laser pointer then you have seen harmonic generation in action. In a green laser pointer an infrared laser with a wavelength of 1064nm is passed through a nonlinear crystal- two photons of 1064nm light are combined to become 1 photon of green 532nm light- the one photon of green light has the same energy as the sum of the two infrared photons. I can only guess this is what the author was referring to when saying: "Previously, two photons were typically used to create laser beams"- but even if that was what the author was referring to, it is hopelessly wrong...

    In High Harmonic Generation this process is taken to an extreme – Instead of taking just two photons and 'combining them' into one photon with twice the energy – HHG essentially takes MANY photons and converts them to one photon with many times the energy- presumably, in this case, photons with energy 5000 times that of the photons in the initial laser beam.

    So an infrared laser with many many photons can be converted into many fewer x-ray photons...

    I guess that is what the article is about- but it was written by someone who has no business writing science articles.

    Seriously- I would be willing to proofread this sort of thing for free, but can't CNN hire an actual science writer?

    June 8, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
    • TX Dad

      I agree.

      Editor Audrey Irvine: Please review both articles from Sari. Both are very poor quality for what should be a science and technology blog.

      June 8, 2012 at 8:33 pm |
    • Ellen

      Yeah. No kidding. Gibberish article. So, by generating harmonics, the energy of 5000 small IR lasers can generate x-rays. That makes sense. They are 3-4 orders of magnitude apart in terms of energy. 5000 is 5 E3. There you are.

      June 8, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
    • shc

      Thanks for the clarification, Arrell. I've worked on femtosecond lasers for 10 years and have personally met Margaret Murnane. I had no idea what the author was talking about.

      June 8, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
    • J


      The article was not written for "those that understand lasers" but for the CNN audience. This is a commercial news blog, not a scientific journal.

      I especially like the part where you state you guessed at the source material and then use that guess to discount the article. Not behavior I would expect from someone who majored in a science.

      June 8, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
      • Arrell

        The article was poorly written and, as evidenced by the other comments, was not understandable to those that don't work with lasers.... it was misleading and just plain wrong. I knew that it was about HHG because I knew thats what Murnane works on...

        The article conveyed no accurate information, anyone that used that article to gain any understanding would come away misinformed. If you are ok with that, and think science articles should only be judged by their 'entertainment value' thats your problem, not mine- The pathetic level of science reporting and education in this country is a serious problem, and garbage like this only perpetuates the problem.

        I don't expect science articles in the popular press to be held to the same standard as journal articles, but I DO expect them to make sense, and to be at least a little correct.

        June 8, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
      • sharoom

        I agree with Arrell. In a field such as science and technology, where everything is technical, it is unjustifiable to "dumb things down." You can make analogies to try and help people to understand, but when you attempt to explain in any detail on how something works and can't do it correctly, then you have no business writing it for mass media. Otherwise, you have all your readers running around with the wrong information in their heads. Go to articles at he Nature Journal website for examples of good science news articles. They post articles for the general public that are generally well written, but most importantly, accurate on what was done.

        June 8, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
      • Nitrogen

        As a physics major, I can corroborate Arrell's hypothesis. I work in an optics lab and we use frequency multiplication crystals to get the laser light we need for atom optics experiments. The state of science reporting in this country is in shambles. It must be even worse for those with Ph.Ds since they've survived the gauntlet of actually writing real papers. Some are then unfortunate enough to have their research gored by shoddy journalism.

        June 9, 2012 at 1:49 am |
    • almadenmike

      We in the science writing community were appalled when CNN disbanded its science reporting unit (reporters and editors) in December 2008. ( They used to be one of the best; now they are nothing. This article is one of many that shows the resulting falloff in quality.

      Regarding this article (and the news release), I wonder what the efficiency of this process is. I can imagine it is very, very low. So while it might be of eventual interest should one need a specific wavelength of x-ray for scientific use, would it be bright enough over a wide enough area for clinical applications?

      June 8, 2012 at 11:15 pm |
    • Chris

      I've worked with lasers in the lab and was guessing that's what they were talking about, but eeks the wording they used made me cringe.

      June 8, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
    • Brandon

      You should have written this article!!! lol Maybe submit a rewrite?

      June 10, 2012 at 2:17 am |
  17. mintmedayil@

    For an accurate description of the discovery, please see

    June 8, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
  18. revolting peasant

    Lazy scientists. We shoudl cut their funding. 10 or 20 years for results pshaw! All that money wasted on the NSF could be used to lower taxes for oil companies so that they could build pipelines across nature preserves and trickle down into lower gas prices and greater prosperity for all.

    June 8, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • Paul

      Good for you. I woud guess by your post that you do not drive a car.

      June 8, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
      • Billy Z

        Paul, I would guess by *your* post that you stand with the Far Right that Almighty Cheap Oil should be the god we worship as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be – corporate greed without end, amen.

        June 9, 2012 at 1:47 am |
  19. adamrussell

    "Previously, two photons were typically used to create laser beams."
    Say what? This is so much nonsense I cant even see what they were trying to say.

    June 8, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • Paul

      I am not a scientist, but I had quite the same reaction. That article makes absoutely no sense.

      June 8, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
      • R Craig Coulter

        I am a scientist, and I also had the same reaction. The author absolutely butchered this article.

        June 8, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
      • Nitrogen

        I *think* what the author is referring to is frequency multiplication techniques. You can double the frequency of a laser by combining the energies of two photons in an optical device with a special crystal. If you do this doubling enough you could get xrays. log2[5000] ~ 12, the number of doubling stages. Halving the wavelength of IR light 12 times results in ~1000nm/5000 = 0.2nm which is in the xray region. Doubling techniques are horribly inefficient though, maybe 10-20% per stage for the ones I've seen. Maybe they're doing something else.

        June 9, 2012 at 1:41 am |
    • CJ Ham

      Was he by chance trying to say that a laser is getting two(usually more) photons going in the same direction? I have no idea what he meant by adding 5000 photons? Maybe he was making reference to something like compton effect or some way of adding energies.

      June 8, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
      • CJ Ham

        Just read the article from the University. They combined photons from 5000 infrared lasers to make a xray beam. They did not have to use a large assembly this way. Which saves energy and space, since it required a large, power hungry facility to make a xray laser beam before.

        June 8, 2012 at 8:16 pm |


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