The next time you feel bored at work, consider the fact that one man has spent the last 20 years using the same equipment to study one particular laser. Now that’s dedication. Daniel Grischkowsky spends most of his time in a basement at Oklahoma State University, where he studies terahertz (THz)—the elusive waves that fall between infrared and microwave radiation in the electromagnetic spectrum. Although THz waves could greatly improve electronic devices and wireless communication, they have not been widely studied because they are too difficult to observe and manipulate.
Grischkowsky started studying THz in the early 90s, and he doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon. He started his career at IBM Watson Research Center, and when the company decided to stop investing in laser technology, IBM let Grischkowsky move the laser equipment to a lab at OSU, where he still uses it today. Located in a basement hallway since 1993, his Ultrafast Terahertz-Optoelectronic Laboratory is a state-of-the-art research facility. Grischkowsky’s team strategically places mirrors throughout the hallway, and they use home humidifiers or theater-fog simulators to change the atmosphere. With these simple but effective adjustments, they are able to shoot the laser as far as 170 meters and measure how it performs in different conditions.
Terahertz waves are radiated as a laser and have potential for applications in electronic devices, due to their unique properties. For example, because they pass through non-conducting materials, they could one day be used to create cameras that can see through objects. Or the particular way they are absorbed and emitted could be used to determine chemical composition of a material. Grischkowsky also discovered that THz could be used to make wireless data transfer faster and more secure. If THz replaced the gigahertz frequencies that are currently used, it would double the speed and bandwidth of data transfer and enable more data downloads at faster speeds.
Grischkowsky is determined to understand this mysterious part of the spectrum, even if his work isn’t the most lucrative research area. “One thing with me and lots of others like myself, we are not dominated by wanting to get rich or something like that, we enjoy professional practice and we are quite happy doing this,” he said, in an interview with OSU’s student newspaper.