As computer technologies continue to shrink to nanoscale dimensions, scientists are finding it increasingly difficult to view and measure their tiny creations. Just billionths of a meter in length, modern machine components are actually becoming smaller than the wavelengths of light used to view them. Researchers have attempted to create laser-type light beams of extremely short wavelengths for viewing these minuscule objects, but the results have typically been weak and the apparatus too cumbersome for practical applications. Now a report published in the current issue of the journal Science indicates that scientists have found a way to create this so-called extreme-ultraviolet light, using equipment that can fit on a dining room table.

In a traditional laser, mirrors at either end of a gas-filled chamber reflect light back and forth, which forces the photons to synchronize and increases the light's intensity. In the new work, Randy Bartels of the University of Colorado and his colleagues shone a high-intensity visible-light laser through an argon-gas-filled tube, in pulses lasting a mere quadrillionth of a second. After traveling through a specially designed "structured waveguide," a stream of synchronized photons with an extreme-ultraviolet wavelength of only tens of nanometers emerged. Intense and powerful, the beam holds its focus far longer than that of a typical light laser and can elucidate much smaller objects.

Potential applications for this new technology could be numerous. In particular, the small size of the apparatus makes it extremely practical, especially for examining the behavior of molecules and for helping engineers design and test manufacturing systems. "In an arena such as microelectronics, any new tool that speeds development of a new technology can have a big economic and competitive impact," team member Henry Kapteyn of JILA at the University of Colorado remarks. It seems another obstacle in the miniaturization of the technological world has been overcome.