BOONE, N.C. — Dr. Lauren Woods and a team of undergraduates from Appalachian State University want to bring lasers out of the realm of Star Wars weaponry and into the home for practical use. In fact, the laser Woods’ team is developing contains turmeric, which can be eaten when lasing is finished.
“I thought it was a neat idea to combine everyday things with technology that’s growing in popularity,” Woods said. “A lot of people associate lasers with weapons, and they’re not just used for that. They’re household items. We want to make them less of a mystery.”
Woods, a lecturer in Appalachian’s Department of Chemistry, has spent the last year working with her co-advisor on the project, Dr. Brooke Hester, assistant professor in Appalachian’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, to develop an edible laser that helps prove her point. The team expects to have the system lasing by the end of the spring 2018 semester and ready for public demonstration by spring 2019.
The project was one of 11 student projects nationwide to win a 2016-17 Marsh W. White Award from the American Institute of Physics’ Society of Physics Students. These awards support projects that promote an interest in physics among students and the general public.
“This project started out as more of a fun thing,” Woods said. “We developed it into a project we can take out to the public so that we can show what a laser is.”
Lasers are common in households, offices and businesses, Woods said, citing laser printers, barcode scanners, DVDs and laser pointers as examples.
When students presented their work in progress at a recent conference, she said many people stopped by to get a closer look at the project.
“Even scientists, when you mention an edible laser, start asking questions,” she said. “We want people to start asking questions. That’s how people learn.”
Lasers consist of three main parts — the pump, the cavity and the gain medium, Woods said. The pump supplies a source of energy to the optical cavity, where light bounces around. The gain medium — the edible component being tested — is placed inside the optical cavity and is the source of gain within a laser; this is what creates the visible beam of light.
Woods and a friend started developing an edible laser when Woods was a postdoctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Woods brought some of the components of the laser with her to Appalachian and proposed the idea to the university’s Physics and Astronomy (PandA) Club, which Hester advises.
At Appalachian, the team experimented with such edible materials as vitamin B-2, beet juice, tonic water and turmeric for the gain medium.
Hester said the PandA Club’s goal is science advocacy and community outreach. They host several demo shows, a laser graffiti booth and a laser maze at Appalachian’s STEAM Expo as part of the annual statewide North Carolina Science Festival, and participate in demonstration shows each year at local schools and on Appalachian’s campus.
“Lasers are very important and are widely used in medicine, telecommunications, astronomy and many other applications,” Hester said, “but not many people understand them or how important they are.”
Jose Salazar, a senior from Wake Forest who is double majoring in math and physics at Appalachian, worked with fellow student Jack Griffin on the project. Griffin, a senior physics major from Waxhaw, said the chance to work on a project with professors and learn something new appealed to him.
“The thing that excited me most about this project was the chance to get hands-on experience with optics,” Griffin said. “I’ll take this knowledge with me to whichever career I choose and will know that it’s had a strong influence in making me a better physicist.”
About the College of Arts and Sciences
The College of Arts and Sciences is home to 16 academic departments, two stand-alone academic programs, two centers and one residential college. These units span the humanities and the social, mathematical and natural sciences. The College of Arts and Sciences aims to develop a distinctive identity built upon our university's strengths, traditions and unique location. Our values lie not only in service to the university and local community, but through inspiring, training, educating and sustaining the development of our students as global citizens. There are approximately 5,850 student majors in the college. As the college is also largely responsible for implementing Appalachian's general education curriculum, it is heavily involved in the education of all students at the university, including those pursuing majors in other colleges. Learn more at http://cas.appstate.edu
About the Department of Chemistry
The Department of Chemistry offers a Bachelor of Arts, plus the Bachelor of Science, with eight different concentrations. The department’s programs prepare students for the chemistry and pharmaceutical industries, professional schools, graduate school, teaching and more. Learn more at https://chemistry.appstate.edu
About the Department of Physics and Astronomy
The Department of Physics and Astronomy’s curriculum has an applied nature that includes a core of fundamental physics courses and laboratory experiences. The department prepares graduates for a variety of scientific, teaching or engineering professions, as well as future educational endeavors. Learn more at https://physics.appstate.edu
About Appalachian State University
Appalachian State University, in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, prepares students to lead purposeful lives as global citizens who understand and engage their responsibilities in creating a sustainable future for all. The transformational Appalachian experience promotes a spirit of inclusion that brings people together in inspiring ways to acquire and create knowledge, to grow holistically, to act with passion and determination, and embrace diversity and difference. As one of 17 campuses in the University of North Carolina system, Appalachian enrolls about 19,000 students, has a low student-to-faculty ratio and offers more than 150 undergraduate and graduate majors.