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Sonic lasers--a shot heard 'round the world

University researchers in the U.K. and the Ukraine develop the first laser to emit sound waves in the terahertz frequency range.

University researchers in England and the Ukraine have built a laser that emits high-frequency sound waves instead of light beams.

Called simply the "saser," the acoustic laser uses packets of sonic vibrations called "phonons" much like a regular laser uses photons.

Specifically, the acoustic laser device consists of a sonic beam traveling through a "superlattice" constructed of 50 sheets of material each only atoms thick that are alternately made of gallium arsenide and aluminium arsenide, two materials found in semiconductors.

Sasers could have "significant and useful applications in the worlds of computing, imaging, and even anti-terrorist security screening," according to the researchers.

Anthony Kent, a professor in the University of Nottingham's School of Physics and Astronomy, led the U.K. group that worked in collaboration with Borys Glavin of the Lashkarev Institute of Semiconductor Physics in the Ukraine.

Professor Anthony Kent of the University of Nottingham. University of Nottingham

The saser theory has been around for years, and several labs around the world have been working on variations of the device. But Kent's group said it has built the "first device to emit sound waves in the terahertz frequency range." The beam of "coherent acoustic waves" that it creates has nanometer wavelengths, according to the group's abstract.

The breakthrough is being published in the prestigious Physical Review journal. The researchers are also receiving a grant for just over $1 million (636,000 pounds) from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council of the U.K..

"While our work on sasers is driven mostly by pure scientific curiosity, we feel that the technology has the potential to transform the area of acoustics, much as the laser has transformed optics in the 50 years since its invention," Kent said Wednesday in a statement.