Now a trio of Brown University researchers, led by engineering and physics professor Jimmy Xu, has made the impossible possible. The team has created the first directly pumped silicon laser. They did it by changing the atomic structure of silicon itself. This was accomplished by drilling billions of holes in a small bit of silicon using a nanoscale template. The result: weak but true laser light. Results are published in an advanced online edition of Nature Materials. In order to make his silicon laser commercially viable, Xu said, it must be engineered to be more powerful and to operate at room temperature. (Right now, it works at 200°C below zero.) But a material with the electronic properties of silicon and the optic properties of a laser would find uses in both the electronics and communications industries, helping to make faster, more powerful computers or fiber optic networks. the team created a template, or “mask,” of anodized aluminum. About a millimeter square, the mask features billions of tiny holes, all uniformly sized and exactly ordered. Placed over a bit of silicon then bombarded with an ion beam, the mask served as a sort of stencil, punching out precise holes and removing atoms in the process. The silicon atoms then subtly rearranged themselves near the holes to allow for light emission.
The creation of billions of holes could be done more precisely if molecular nanotechnology capabilities existed. These kinds of material alterations to generate new properties would be more commonplace at that point.