A team of U.S. researchers say they’ve achieved a long-sought scientific goal of using laser light to break specific molecular bonds.

The process, developed by Philip Cohen at the University of Minnesota, uses laser light, instead of heat, to strip hydrogen atoms from silicon surfaces. That’s a key step in the manufacture of computer chips and solar cells, so the achievement could reduce the cost and improve the quality of a wide variety of semiconductor devices.

The technique was developed with Vanderbilt University researchers Leonard Feldman, Norman Tolk and Zhiheng Liu along with Zhenyu Zhang from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee.

We live in the silicon age, said Tolk. The fact that we have figured out how to remove hydrogen with a laser raises the possibility that we will be able to grow silicon devices at very low temperatures, close to room temperature.

One application that we intend to examine is the use of this technique to manufacture field effect transistors that operate at speeds about 40 percent faster than ordinary transistors, said Cohen.

The study appears in the May 19 issue of the journal Science.