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Commercial Spin-offs Abound For New Free Electron Laser

The world of laser technology took a giant leap forward recently as researchers in Newport News, Va., delivered "first light" from the world's most powerful Free Electron Laser (FEL).

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility produced the first light from the laser on June 17--only two years after construction began on the new laser and the building that houses it.

During its initial run, infrared light of 155 watts — 15 times more powerful than any existing free-electron laser — was produced. "This is the first step toward an enormously useful, new generation of lasers that will leave their mark as industrial and scientific tools. There's no other laser like this in the world," said senior research scientist Michael J. Kelley of DuPont, who chairs the industry-university-government team working with the new laser.

Development of this very powerful, efficient and versatile laser holds great potential for scientific research, developing new manufacturing processes and creating new and improved consumer products, and military applications. Once the FEL is fully developed, it could be a cost-effective, high-volume manufacturing tool capable of processing plastics, synthetic fibers, metals and advanced materials. According to a panel of industry and government scientists, the Free Electron Laser's potential commercial value is significant, and could impact several multibillion dollar markets.

The laser is of interest to business and industry for a variety of purposes including:

For example: At low cost, the new laser can improve polyester — a major material on the world's fiber market. While polyester is durable and easy to clean, it lacks natural texture (or feel) and appearance. Laser light can be used to "micro-roughen" the fiber — leaving the polyester with a natural-fiber look and feel while keeping its other positive qualities.

Other polymer surface treatment applications are also being researched. Annual U.S. polymer food packaging production amounts to billions of pounds, much of it hard to recycle. Single-serving juice containers, for instance, often have layers of paper, plastic and aluminum. An appealing alternative is a single-material plastic container, with surface processing by an FEL so it could be printed on the outside for labeling, have an airtight coating on the inside, and be affordably recycled.

Experiments have shown that certain ranges of ultraviolet light can transform a polymer surface's chemical composition, causing it to kill microbes on contact, much as a mouthwash does. Such antimicrobial packaging for food, beverages and medicines would reduce the need for refrigerated shipping and storage. And just imagine an antimicrobial shower curtain that never gets moldy!

Another category of prospective FEL applications is micromachining: the fabrication of three-dimensional mechanical structures with dimensions as small as a micron — a millionth of a meter — and features that are smaller still. Examples are ultrahigh-density CD ROMs and improved micro-optical devices.

FELs can also be used for hardening, smoothing and improving the corrosion resistance of metals. In one prospective FEL application, turbine blade service longevity would be substantially increased by laser-treating the metal surface. Some metal surface applications have been demonstrated using conventional lasers, but not commercialized for lack of high-power, low-cost lasers.

To enable researchers to probe deep inside the atom's nucleus with electrons, Jefferson Lab pioneered superconducting technology for accelerating electrons to high energy in efficient, cost-effective accelerators. Jefferson Lab's superconducting electron-accelerating technology offers two commanding cost advantages for FELs: the laser can stay on 100 percent of the time instead of only 1- 2% as compared with other FELs, and 99% of the energy not converted to useful light in a single pass can be recycled.

The FEL is a unique tool for basic research in materials science and atomic molecular physics, and now because of its efficiency, it offers cost-effective uses for industrial processing. Initial users include DuPont (polymer processing) and Armco/Northrop-Grumman/Virginia Power (metals processing). In addition, Old Dominion University, the College of William and Mary, Christopher Newport University and Norfolk State University (all of Virginia) are partnering with industries in a recently-completed Applied Research Facility adjacent to the Jefferson Lab campus to take advantage of the FEL's capabilities.