Low-cost silicon chips enable engineers to manipulate streams of electrons so that they can perform the myriad functions that make our computers, cellular phones and other consumer electronics so useful. If integrated silicon circuits could similarly create and control beams of light, they could make possible a range of inexpensive new technologies suited to many other applications. But for decades, silicon's very nature has thwarted scientists' dogged efforts to transform the material into a source of the necessary concentrated light.

Now several research groups, starting with mine, have coaxed silicon to produce laser light. The advance could have enormous implications for electronic devices that incorporate lasers and optical amplifiers, which currently rely on lasing materials that are far more costly and less common than silicon.