Quantum cascade lasers and other tech mysteries

Six inventors of complicated technologies you’ve likely never heard of will be on Capitol Hill on Wednesday morning.

They are inventors, such as 71-year-old Al Cho, who created the technology that allows people to go from, say, Washington to Richmond and talk on their cell phone, switching from tower to tower without interruption.

In May, Cho and nine other inventors will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio. Five inventors of the 15-member group will be inducted into the Hall of Fame posthumously. Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio) will be on hand at Wednesday’s event at 10:30 a.m. in Rayburn 2325.

“A lot of people have never heard of molecular beam epitaxy,” said Rini Paiva, spokeswoman for the National Inventors Hall of Fame, noting the invention for which Cho is being awarded. “The thing is, we’re talking about an individual who has been honored countless times before for this process … a process where crystalline films are layered one tiny layer at a time to form … the lasers that would be in your DVD player [or] your CD drive at home.”

She marvels, “When you stop and look at these things that way it’s a little staggering.”

The process for deciding who gets inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame is rigorous, Paiva explains. For one thing, she says, the invention must be something that has had a significant impact on society, and it must have a U.S. patent.

Born in Beijing, Cho came to the United States in 1955. For the past 37 years he has worked as vice president for Bell Laboratories. He says he has “officially retired” but still has the same office there, from which he does consulting.

He speaks in technologese, remarking on things such as “high-frequency microwave devices,” or a laser that reads signals. Cho is proud of his work in the sense that “you see it being used in everyday life.”

At the moment he’s working with “quantum cascade lasers.”

Translation? It’s technology that will eventually allow for personal medical detection. “Today maybe you are detecting ammonia gas from your breasts and maybe you have an ulcer,” Cho says. “More and more, human beings [will use] personal medical detections in everyday life.”

For now, Cho is deeply touched by his upcoming induction into the Inventors Hall of Fame. “I feel extremely honored and humbled to be one of them,” he says. “I’m just very fortunate that I’m able to work for Bell, where there’s so many outstanding scientists and engineers. We work together as a team, and that has contributed greatly to my success.”