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Lasers in the Chemistry Lab

Photonics Spectra
Mar 1999
Daniel C. McCarthy, News Editor

Physicists may explore the fundamental interactions between light and matter, but in the chemistry lab these interactions get put to work. The intense monochromatic light from lasers has found application in both physical and analytical chemistry. Laser light is used as a photonic reagent to precipitate reactions, as a probe into atomic energy states and even as "tweezers" in subcellular research.
Photonics Spectra spent a day at Stanford University's ZareLab in Palo Alto, Calif. to witness how lasers are put to use in chemistry research. The ZareLab is named after its director, Dr. Richard Zare, who pioneered many applications for lasers in chemistry, including laser-induced fluorescence.
Learning to use that tool is a hands-on experience for Dr. Zare's students, who often assemble systems using lasers as old as themselves. It's a matter of limited funds, explains Zare. Any system can be improved with money and the ZareLab is larger and better funded than most university labs, but Zare says he prefers to invest his finite resources in the students.
In a scientific marketplace typified by increasingly narrow fields of specialized research, Zare coaches his students to be generalists. He asserts that the lines between physics, chemistry and biology are blurring and that lasers are a fundamental tool in all three fields. When asked if his lab has an underlying tenet to align the research of the nearly 30 students attending there, Zare responds simply, "Do good science."

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