The bountiful beam

Lasers are 50, and the source of many breakthroughs at Rice

Rice News staff

How many lasers do you suppose there are at Rice University?

Thousands, probably. Every CD player in a residence or car has one. Every computer with a disc burner has one. Every DVD player and every laser pointer, obviously. Many labs carrying out advanced science at Rice depend on laser light to heat things, to cool things and even manipulate the smallest of particles.

Frank Tittel, Rice’s J.S. Abercrombie Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering, built the first tunable laser in Texas when he came to the university in 1967. Tittel played a role in the discovery of the buckyball in 1986, and continues to pioneer new techniques in sensing trace chemicals with lasers.


But does anybody give a second thought about what the modern world would be like without lasers? No wonder a recent National Public Radio story called lasers “the Rodney Dangerfield of technology.” They’re so ubiquitous they don’t get any respect.

It’s been 50 years since the first ruby laser beam was emitted in a Hughes Research lab on May 16, 1960. Even then it was quickly characterized as “a solution looking for a problem.”

But it didn’t take scientists long to see the potential in what the public first thought of as a novelty or the stuff of science fiction. As a tool for advanced optics, telecommunications, sensing and all kinds of materials science and manipulation – even surgery — the laser is second to none for sheer utility.

Lasers in Rice’s labs perform highly specialized tasks that make possible some of the most advanced research at the university. There are a lot of people to thank for that, but start with Frank Tittel.

Rice’s J.S. Abercrombie Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering can’t say for sure whether his was the first laser at Rice. Retired professors Ronald Stebbings, G. King Walters and George Trammell and the late Thomas Rabson used lasers in the ’60s and ’70s as they researched applications in astrophysics, radar and even nuclear fusion.

But Tittel’s laser was certainly one of the first, created shortly after he arrived from American University in Cairo in 1967.

Tittel started building lasers at General Electric, shortly after arriving in the United States from Oxford University. On his first day at GE in 1960, he was asked to recreate the breakthrough beam made by Theodore Maiman at Hughes. “That used brute force,” Tittel said of his own laser, which consisted of a ruby rod, a camera flashlamp and a power supply and was later donated to the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia. “Now we’re more sophisticated.”

At the start of a long career at Rice, Tittel created one of the world’s first tunable lasers, with a wavelength that could be tuned to a specific frequency. It became key to many advances in laser applications and critical to the development of spectroscopy.

In fact, without Tittel’s lasers, Rice wouldn’t be celebrating the Year of Nano in recognition of a quarter century since his colleagues, the late Richard Smalley and Robert Curl, Rice’s University Professor Emeritus and the Kenneth S. Pitzer-Schlumberger Professor Emeritus of Natural Sciences, along with Sir Harold Kroto of the University of Sussex, found the buckminsterfullerene molecule. Their discovery, better known as the buckyball, a tough, soccer-ball-shaped nanoparticle made of 60 carbon atoms, won them the Nobel Prize in 1996 and set off a nanotechnology revolution that continues today.

Kroto, a chemist by training who developed an interest in astrophysics, visited Rice in 1985 to use a unique apparatus designed by Smalley with help from Tittel and Curl to figure out why chains of carbon molecules were so abundant in interstellar clouds. The apparatus incorporated lasers to vaporize a thin disk of graphite and as part of a spectrometer to analyze the compounds that resulted.

Curl said Smalley initially showed little interested in pursuing the experiment, but Curl thought Kroto’s ideas had merit. “My argument was that the experiment might actually lead to a test of a proposal of the origin of the diffuse interstellar bands,” he said. “Rick could see the advantage of trying to find the solution to a 50-year-old mystery.”

But something else caught their attention. The experiments in late 1985 showed an abundance of carbon 60, which set the scientists racing to figure out what such a molecule would look like. “We had this problem that this (carbon cluster) was a little strong, and it looked like there was something there,” Curl said, noting that the team pursued the interstellar question no further. “The discovery of the fullerenes drew all our attention.”

Smalley was the first to find the solution, assembling a paper model of hexagons and pentagons that turned out to be identical to a soccer ball. (In a webcast available here, Curl described how the team came up with the key to the solution over enchiladas at a Houston diner.)

Within days, Nature received their paper announcing the discovery of the buckminsterfullerene, which they described as a “truncated icosahedron.” The scientists noted they were “disturbed at the number of letters and syllables in the rather fanciful but highly appropriate name … A number of alternatives come to mind (for example, ballene, spherene, soccerene, carbosoccer), but we prefer to let this issue of nomenclature be settled by consensus.” It became popularly known as the buckyball.

Tittel will take part in the October symposium that will feature a discussion of the discovery by Curl; Kroto, now the Francis Eppes Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Florida State University; Heath, the Elizabeth W. Gilloon Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, and O’Brien, vice president of process engineering at MEMtronics.

The symposium will include talks by top international scientists on the state of the art in nanotechnology and its future. Related events include the 10-10-10 Gala and the Oct. 11 Bucky ‘Ball’ Celebration, an on-campus open house of all things nano where the National Historic Chemical Landmark designation for the buckyball discovery will be bestowed upon Space Science building.

Lockheed Martin is the primary sponsor of the Year of Nano organized by Rice’s Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology. The institutions are partners in the Lockheed Martin Advanced Nanotechnology Center of Excellence at Rice, aka LANCER, through which researchers in academia tackle the high-tech industry’s toughest problems.

Rice scientists are also sponsoring a public talk  on the 50th anniversary of the laser at the American Physical Society Division of Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics meeting. It will be held at 8 p.m. May 26 at the Hyatt Regency Houston Hotel, 1200 Louisiana St., Houston.

Want to learn more about lasers?

In honor of the technology’s 50th anniversary, Rice scientists will sponsor a free public lecture, “Extreme Light Laser: Analyzing the Texture of Matter From the Atom to Vacuum,” as part of the American Physical Society’s 41st annual Division of Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics meeting May 25-29.

The talk by Gérard Mourou, director of the Institut de Lumi

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.