People and Lasers: Edible Lasers

Photo courtesy of Marie Freeman.

Dr. Lauren Woods, PhD, has been working to develop an edible laser with her team at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. What is an edible laser, you ask? Read on and find out.

Dr. Lauren Woods (Phd) Headshot
Dr. Lauren Woods (PhD)

As with all good ideas, Dr. Woods’ edible laser project was born at a party. “One of my good friends, Dr. Andreas Velten, and I started talking about gin and tonic lasers that they built back in the 1970’s. We were discussing how much lasers have developed since then, and that we could probably build a better one. So, we started with a ‘tonic laser,’ trying to develop that in Wisconsin,” says Dr. Woods. When she made the move to Appalachian State University a year later, Dr. Woods took the project with her. There, she’s partnered with a physics professor to keep the momentum going. “I started collaborating with Dr. Brook Hester in the Physics and Astronomy Department, who is also the advisor of the Physics and Astronomy club. I’m actually the advisor for the Chemistry Club, but we couldn’t get any of the chemists to be interested, so we have two physicists working on the project!” she reflects jokingly.

Jack Griffin, physics student. Photo courtesy of Marie Freeman.

To test out if the gain efficiency of the proposed edible material would work, Dr. Woods’ team, including Appalachian State University physics majors Jack Griffin and Jose Salazar, evaluated “several other materials and calculated the quantum yields. That’s not exactly the same as a gain efficiency of a laser, but it gave us an idea of if it would work or not when we got to the edible gain media,” she says. The chosen substances for testing were beet juice, turmeric spice, Vitamin B, and tonic water, which were mostly unheard of in the laser world as gain media. “The energy source we’re using to create this laser is another laser, and that wavelength is at 450 nanometers. So we’re trying to find something that can excite at that level,” says Dr. Woods. The pump laser is blue/purple, with the laser created varying depending on the gain medium, mostly coming out as yellow/green.

So, what is the edible part? Can you eat the laser beam? Well, no. Basically, Dr. Woods’ research team are “making solutions with Vitamin B in water or ethanol. That makes it consumable.” These mixtures are used as the source of optimal gain, or gain medium, therefore making a part of the laser edible. “Our overall goal would be to have a flow cell coming through, so we could distribute drinks or something like that.” So, no eating laser beams…yet.

As for how tasty the cocktails would be, Dr. Woods isn’t about to sell you a bottle of these just yet: “Honestly, Vitamin B tastes terrible, so I don’t think anyone would want it right now. It’s more about the potential for future things than the marketability of our current laser cocktails,” she admits.

The edible laser emits a purple light. Photo courtesy of Marie Freeman.

Surprisingly, the future of this project may be even more exciting than the edible laser part. “We’re trying to use cheaper parts for this project,” Dr. Woods emphasizes, “because a lot of undergrad institutes don’t have a lot of funding to have a full optics course with a lot of lasers. By developing an eye-catching project that could be used for outreach purposes to draw the public in, we can teach the public about how a laser works, its properties and benefits. Universities could use this to fund the development of an optics lab. I’m hoping to publish a “How To Guide” sometime in the next year, to share with interested institutions.”

As for where laser technology is moving, Dr. Woods is excited about the future of medical tools. Her post-doc research involved “combining laser spectroscopy and laser microscopy with ultrasound to examine cancerous tissues. We can use these techniques to apply to various exciting and meaningful biological applications,” she says.

Dr. Woods’ team are working to have the edible laser lasing by June 2018, and available for safe public demonstration by early 2019. In the meantime, you can stay up to date on her work by following Appalachian State University online.


Thank you to Dr. Woods for this interview!

Original Posting Date: 3/14/18