The new amplifier consists of a superconducting material (niobium titanium nitride) coiled into a double spiral 16 millimeters in diameter. (Photo : Peter Day)
Amplifiers might be associated mostly with your car stereo or that giant poster of Jimmy Page you have in your room of him at Royal Albert Hall and a souped up 100-watt Marshall Super Lead Plexi. But you'd be surprised that they are used in a variety of fields, including studying the galaxies and stars. Now, scientists have devised a new type of amplifier that will help scientists study the universe.
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The amplifier was designed with a team consisting of members from CalTech and NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL).
"This amplifier will redefine what it is possible to measure," says Jonas Zmuidzinas, Caltech's Merle Kingsley Professor of Physics, the chief technologist at JPL, and a member of the research team.
The team originally developed the amplifier to boost microwave signals from space, but the design has evolved to where it can scan a variety of wavelengths from radio waves to X-rays. It can be used to peer into the heart of the cosmos by picking up incredibly faint signals from objects like black holes and other "exotic" cosmic objects and boosting them to readable levels by astronomers.
The new CalTech-JPL amplifier works as well as a parametric amplifier only it can boost signals across more frequencies.
"Our new amplifier has it all," says Zmuidzinas. "You get to have your cake and eat it too."
Transistor amplifiers work well over a large range of frequencies. The only problem is that when boosting incredibly faint signals, the transistor amplifier introduces a large amount of noise. Parametric amplifiers on the other hand, can amplify a weak signal with almost no added noise other than the "unavoidable noise caused by the jiggling of atoms and waves according to the laws of quantum mechanics." There only drawback is that they work with a very specific range of frequencies.
"It's hard to predict what all of the applications are going to end up being, but a nearly perfect amplifier is a pretty handy thing to have in your bag of tricks," Zmuidzinas said.
In fact, the amplifier is so sensitive and has such a small level of noise introduction that Professor Keith Schwab at CalTech, wants to use the amplifier to study the world of particles that exist between the world of classical physics and the even tinier world of quantum mechanics.