Originally created 01/20/99

New blue laser to be unveiled



TOKYO -- Beating large electronics companies to the punch, a small Japanese firm has developed a short-wavelength laser that could have many practical applications, including eye surgery and high-definition videos.

Nichia Chemical Industries Ltd., an obscure high-tech firm based in southern Japan, plans to offer samples of its blue- or violet-light laser to commercial companies as soon as next month, company spokesman Kazu Miyazaki said Wednesday.

Experts say Nichia's breakthrough provides the key to developing high-definition video disks, higher-resolution laser printers, more precise laser surgery and scores of as-of-yet unimagined applications.

"There are obvious uses in digital storage" of information, said Gerhard Fasol, president of the company Eurotechnology Japan and a specialist in blue-laser technology. "But it's a completely new product, so there will be a lot of other applications that aren't yet known."

The innovation's main importance lies in its wavelength. The wavelength of Nichia's blue laser -- 400 nanometers -- is about one-third shorter than that of conventional red-light lasers, allowing it to blast smaller grooves into CD-ROMS and therefore triple their storage capacity.

Shorter wavelengths could also make household lighting several times more energy-efficient. And the laser's blue color could be used together with conventional red and yellow lasers to pave the way for much more accurate computer displays and scanners.

Because of its far-reaching commercial potential, the short-wavelength blue laser has been one of the holy grails of high technology, and global conglomerates like Hewlett-Packard and Japan's Toshiba and Sony have placed a high priority on developing it.

But Nichia's chief researcher Shunji Nakamura and a handful of assistants at the 1,350-employee firm defeated larger rivals by using materials called gallium nitrides, which are also used to make semiconductors. Few companies took gallium nitrides seriously when Nakamura began exploring their potential for blue lasers in the late 1980s.

But after Nichia produced the first light-emitting blue laser diode in 1993, many competitors switched their research to focus also on gallium nitrides. By then, Nichia was way ahead in the race to develop a functional blue laser.

Nichia, based in the small city of Anan, 320 miles southwest of Tokyo, is widely recognized to be one to two years ahead of others in its research on blue lasers -- a virtual eternity in high-tech research.

"Nichia succeeded because they are a totally unconventional company," said Fasol, who wrote a book about blue lasers with Nichia's Nakamura. "They were also lucky in hitting upon the right material for their research."

Nichia's laser has a life span of 10,000 hours, sufficient for commercial purposes, and a constant power output at room temperature.

Other companies have developed lasers in the blue-violet range, but none that operate at room temperature and with the stable beam needed for practical use.

Short-wavelength laser technology is expected to be available for use in commercial products within half a year. Many of Nichia's rivals are rushing to be the first to adapt the new laser to CD-ROMS and computer printers, but they will have to contend with patents owned by the Japanese company.

Nichia created its short-wavelength laser with what analysts said was a low budget and a research and development team of a few dozen people.