BY ADAM MANN03.18.136:30 AM

Using a nanoscale drum, scientists have built a laser that uses sound waves instead of light like a conventional laser.

Because laser is an acronym for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation,” these new contraptions – which exploit particles of sound called phonons – should properly be called phasers. Such devices could one day be used in ultrasound medical imaging, computer parts, high-precision measurements, and many other places.

A laser is created when a bunch of light particles, known as photons, are emitted at a specific and very narrow wavelength. The photons all travel in the same direction at the same time, allowing them to efficiently carry energy from one place to another. Since their invention more than 50 years ago, almost all lasers have used light waves. Early on, scientists speculated that sound waves be used instead, but this has proved tricky to actually achieve.

It wasn’t until 2010 that researchers built the very first sound lasers, coaxing a collection of phonons to travel together. But those first devices were hybrid models that used the light from a traditional laser to create a coherent sound emission.