“Lifelike” lasers can self-organize, adapt, and cooperate like living systems

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Microparticles clustering around a Janus particle. The dashed line outlines the laser area and the pink/yellow lines show the traces of multiple microparticles. Photo credit: Imperial College London

Self-assembling lasers could lead to new materials for sensors, computers, light sources and displays by mimicking features of living systems.

Although many artificial materials have advanced properties, they still have a long way to go to combine the versatility and functionality of living materials that can adapt to their situation. For example, bones and muscles in the human body are constantly reorganizing their structure and composition to better withstand changing weight and activity levels.

Now scientists have demonstrated the first spontaneously self-assembling laser device that can reconfigure itself as conditions change.

The innovation will help enable the development of smart photonic materials capable of better mimicking properties of biological matter such as responsiveness, adaptation, self-healing and collective behavior. Researchers from Imperial College London and University College London (UCL) reported the findings in the journal on July 14 natural physics,

Microparticles group around Janus particles

Microparticles group around a Janus particle. Photo credit: Imperial College London

Co-lead author Professor Riccardo Sapienza from the Department of Physics at Imperial said: “Lasers, which power most of our technologies, are engineered from crystalline materials to have precise and static properties. We wondered if we could create a laser that could merge structure and functionality, self-reconfigure and cooperate like biological materials do.

“Our laser system can reconfigure and cooperate, enabling a first step in emulating the ever-evolving relationship between structure and functionality inherent in living materials.”

Lasers are devices that amplify light to produce a specific form of light. In the team’s experiment, the self-assembling lasers consisted of microparticles with high ‘gain’ – the ability to amplify light – dispersed in a liquid. After enough of these microparticles have accumulated, they can use external energy to “lase” – produce laser light.

An external laser was used to heat a “Janus” particle (a particle coated on one side with light-absorbing material) around which the microparticles gathered. The laser produced by these microparticle clusters could be turned on and off by changing the intensity of the external laser, which in turn controlled the size and density of the cluster.

The research team also demonstrated how the laser cluster could be transmitted into space by heating different Janus particles, demonstrating the adaptability of the system. Janus particles can also work together and create clusters with properties beyond simply adding two clusters, such as B. changing their shape and increasing their laser power.

Co-first author Dr. Giorgio Volpe from UCL’s Department of Chemistry said: “Nowadays lasers are used as a matter of course in medicine, telecommunications and also in industrial production. Embodying lasers with lifelike properties will enable the development of robust, autonomous and durable next-generation materials and devices for sensor applications, unconventional computing, novel light sources and displays.”

Next, the research team plans to investigate how the autonomous behavior of the lasers can be improved to make them even more lifelike. A first application of the technology could be next-generation electronic inks for smart displays.

Reference: “Self-Assembled Lasers from Reconfigurable Colloidal Arrays” by Manish Trivedi, Dhruv Saxena, Wai Kit Ng, Riccardo Sapienza, and Giorgio Volpe, July 14, 2022, natural physics.
DOI: 10.1038/s41567-022-01656-2

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