It turns out that the phaser is actually a sound-based device. Who knew? Also it’s really tiny.
OK, we’re fudging a little bit, here. The phaser in question is not a handheld directed-energy weapon, at least not yet. Instead, it’s a device that focuses phonons, which are essentially photons, only with sound instead of light.
The key point here is that, like a laser, it focuses on a very, very narrow spectrum:
For the phaser, a mechanical oscillator jiggles and excites a bunch of phonons, which relax and release their energy back into the device. The confined energy causes the phaser to vibrate at its fundamental frequency but with at a very narrow wavelength. The sound laser produces phonons at 170 kilohertz, far above human hearing range, which peters out around 20 kilohertz. The entire device is etched onto an integrated circuit that’s about 1 cm by 0.5 cm.
OK, so aside from being kinda neat, why should you care?
Well, the short answer is that phasers could, in their current form, make measurement much more precise. This too sounds boring until you realize it could mean, for example, the machining of much smaller and thinner parts to tighter tolerances, opening new horizons in pretty much every product you buy. It can also serve as a clock, meaning quartz crystals can be removed from electronics, reducing those in size even further.
And these are just the ideas the team who invented it have come up with. Everybody thought the laser was this dorky curiosity nearly a half-century ago, and today it’s crucial to modern life. Who knows where the phaser might take us?
Just, maybe avoid red shirts from now on.