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Prof Adams FRS (Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Surrey), headed the Optoelectronic Materials and Devices Research Group. In 1986, he had an idea which has had an impact on almost all of us – at work, at home and in the way we choose to communicate. The strained quantum well laser has led to technologies and products which are worth billions of dollars worldwide, and are now used in everything from car manufacture to the internet.

Straining the laser

Prof Adams discovered that, if the laser’s crystal lattice was grown in a way which put it under strain, it could be ‘squashed’ into a shape which produced a more controlled, concentrated beam of light – making it more energy efficient and powerful than any other laser at that time.

First commercial applications to everyday use

Strained lasers could be used in many applications: CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray, allowing them to become smaller and cheaper, yet with greater data capacity. Today, they are used in many other sectors, including computers and optical fibre communications, scanners and readers at supermarket checkouts.

Telecommunications & the internet

The photonics group at the University of Surrey is now led by Prof Stephen Sweeney who is building on Alf Adam’s work and expanding research into new areas. He recalls: “I looked at the limitations of the laser technology and set out to develop faster and more efficient lasers for communications.”

The technology produces short and powerful pulses of light to transfer information extremely fast, ‘at the speed of light’. With optical fibres as carriers, this led to the development of high speed telecommunications, and eventually the internet. Nowadays, all optical telecommunications use strained lasers.

Prof Sweeney says: “The internet currently consumes about 1% of total energy consumption, and web usage is increasing exponentially. So by continuing to develop the strained laser, we can reduce costs, energy consumption and environmental impact.”

More uses for strained lasers

Research continues to create new opportunities including environmental pollution sensing equipment and strained layer solar cell and low energy LED-based lighting.