“When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” means that when people have a certain tool, they tend to use it for everything, even in situations when it doesn’t make any sense. Lasers are the modern equivalent of that hammer, except it turns out that they can be used in just about any situation and still make sense as an efficient tool.
Laser rifles might be the most obvious, yet improbable, use of lasers yet. Laser rifles have existed for years in science fiction and have only just recently made the jump to science reality. Previously used by a machine as an industrial cutting tool, British company TWI attached a pistol grip to it and handed it out to living staff. Now this handheld tool fires a 5-kilowatt beam that can slice through metal like melted butter, while still being environmentally friendly.
The users have to wear a special reflective suit paired with goggles that prevents them from being hurt by the lasers. Unlike the lightsaber George Lucas gave us wet dreams over, a laser rifle has limited range and requires a lot of power. Of course, if you needed to get rid of an adversary that was lying unconscious at your feet, it would fit the bill.
9. Defending Military Bases and Ships
It’s not only super villains who guard their headquarters with laser beams and similar tech: the US Navy does so as well. The USS Ponce is an old Navy boat which was first commissioned in 1971; it is now mostly used to defend an Iranian base located next to the sea. However, the boat on its own is particularly vulnerable to attacks by small swarming speedboats. Other Navy boats, which are used in similar locations around the world, are particularly vulnerable as well.
In response to this, the US Navy has decided to attach lasers to boats, which will be used as both a warning and an offensive weapon, with a low-power beam used as a light and a high-power one used to, well, blow a hole in the offending boat. The USS Ponce is being retrofitted with the system so it can fight both sea attackers and unarmed drones, as well as save money for the Pentagon.
8. To Shoot Down Enemy Missiles
As we’ve learned from TV and movies, airplanes and missiles don’t normally make a pleasurable mix. The Pentagon has also observed this, and has spent billions of dollars to help solve the problem. They are in the process of manufacturing and testing small 150-kilowatt lasers for the purpose of shooting surface-to-air missiles. Once ready, they will be used by fighter pilots and the Navy air wing for the purpose of defense. After all, it doesn’t matter how many missiles you have on board if all it takes is one to blow them to smithereens.
This is not the first use of lasers as an MDS: while there was a whole airborne laser testing program which was scrapped in 2012, there was also a counterpart model for trucks. Boeing developed a truck mounted laser system in 2010 for similar purposes. The high power laser system was to be mounted on an Oshkosh Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck (HEMTT) and used to counter rockets, mortar fire and artillery.
Next on the agenda, sharks…
7. Making Water Run Uphill
Lasers are fascinating things which have various effects on their environment, but few things are more fascinating than a laser with enough power to power the US electric grid being fired at some metal. One such thing is the effect the lasers have on that metal. Using extremely powerful lasers, scientists have been able to alter its properties so that water flow can be manipulated in extremely acrobatic ways, even making it flow uphill against the power of gravity.
How does this work? Simple: using the aforementioned laser, individual molecules of a metal surface are shot for a femtosecond (one quadrillionth of a normal second). This makes the molecules incredibly water averse, and forces the water molecules to become more attracted to each other than they are to the metal.
6. An Aid to Help Blind People Drive
One of the main disadvantages of being blind is the complete inability to drive. However, that might not be the case for much longer. With the use of lasers, special cars may soon be created which incorporate lasers, using them to scan the environment around the car. Like the driving equivalent of Braille, the sensors would use several tactile cues to transfer this information to the driver and allow them to navigate. It also made use of audio cues built into the steering wheel and voice command functionality — like Siri but for cars — and a map that uses compressed air to indicate directions.
Tested by the researchers from Virginia Tech’s Blind Driver Team, their prototype was a buggy which trialed with both blind and blindfolded participants. The blind people were actually able to perform better than the blindfolded ones. The team plans to target electric cars in their development cycle, as they would be able to run more smoothly, with less-distracting vibrations than regular cars. It would be like driving with a set of floodlights pointed at your windshield for a blind person.
5. A Killer of Cancer
The visual of shooting down cancer cells with brightly-colored beams is almost too fantastical to be real, except it totally is. Scientists at UCBB have developed a message of countering cancer cells with the use of laser beams and nano-particles. Testing this treatment on mice, the lasers were used to deliver RNA, which countered the growth and development of cancer cells directly into the diseased cells of the mice. The RNA used here was engineered to attack the genes which caused cell mitosis in the cancer cells stop them from carrying out their function. The RNA was covered in special gold nano-shells and then then placed in the cancerous shells; upon being absorbed, the laser was then used to cut open the nano-shells, releasing the RNA selectively into specially targeted cells.
However, like all techniques which involve mice and experiments, there is no current way to scale this up to human size and so the technique is still in its early stages.
4. A Pacemaker
Researchers at Case Western Reserve University and Vanderbilt University have found out that lasers could potentially be used to keep a heart beat steady, basically acting as a pacemaker.
Scientists use lasers to heat the heart cells, forcing them to contract by way of an ion channel. They figured this out by taking a quail egg and plugging a fiber optic cable into the developing heart. They then pumped short laser bursts through the cable and into the heart, heating it up and forcing it to contract. The lasers were then able to regulate the heart rate according to how often the pulses were sent, effectively regulating them better than a regular pacemaker. The downside? Several animals involved in the testing were killed.
3. Brain Tumor Cooker
Some cancers need a little stronger treatment than a laser beam into their RNA, so doctors at Washington University have provided the next best thing – lasers directly into the cancerous tumor itself. The technique was demonstrated in an operation on a patient which involved drilling a hole into the skull of the laser. Making use of MRI technology, they navigated around the complex maze that is the brain until the cancer is located. A laser probe (kind of like what aliens do) is then inserted into the hole, with the laser coming out at a 90-degree angle. The laser beam is then used to heat the cancerous cells up to 60 degrees, essentially taking them past the viability point and killing them.
2. A Diamond Floater
Lasers can even make diamonds ignore the rules of gravity and shun Mother Earth. A research team at the University of Rochester made use of impure diamonds and laser beams to perform science magic. Generally, light (which is made up of millions of tiny particles) exerts force on objects (just like any other object made out of particles), but is generally too small to have an effect. The researchers made a cloud formed out of nanometers of an impure diamond — that is, one filled with little impurities like nitrogen vacancies. Due to the size of the diamonds, the lasers were able to levitate the individual mini diamonds.
This wasn’t done just because scientists have too much time — this research allows them to find out more about the nature of light and particles which will help us create better technology in future. Also, it helped us find out that hitting diamonds with lasers also makes them glow, so there’s that too.
Vaccinations are generally awkward affairs, filled with painful pins and needles. In the future however, they could be filled with nothing more than little bursts of light burning holes into your cells.
Scientists at Georgia Tech are pioneering the technique, which involves using a laser to open up a cell, delivering a payload in the form of a molecule, and sealing the cell back within a split second. If that sounds better and more efficient than an injection to you, then you’re scientifically minded. It also targets infections which would be harder, or even impossible, to reach with conventional vaccines, like some viruses which target the inside of cells.