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In existing lasers, a photon of light is emitted when a negative charge (an electron) jumps from a semiconductor's conduction band to a positive charge (or "hole") in the valence band. Once an electron has been neutralized by a hole it can emit no more photons. The quantum-cascade laser contains a series of electron "traps," or quantum wells. The semiconductor material in the laser is arranged to sandwich an electron in two dimensions as it passes through, coaxing the electron into a quantum well. As it exits, it emits a photon and loses energy. When the lower-energy electron leaves the first well, it enters a region of material where

it is collected and sent to the next well. Typically 25 to 75 active wells are arranged in a QC laser, each at a slightly lower energy level than the one before -- thus producing the cascade effect, and allowing 25 to 75 photons to be created per electron journey. The QC laser is unique in that its entire structure is manufactured a layer of atoms at a time by a crystal growth technique, Molecular Beam Epitaxy or MBE, invented at Bell Labs in the late sixties. By simply changing the thickness of the semiconductor layers, the laser's wavelength can be changed as well.

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