Accord Could Bring Better Golf Clubs:

Tech Breakthroughs Passed to Industry

NEWPORT NEWS - An agreement signed yesterday between a federal nuclear physics laboratory and a space and aeronautics research center could lead to better golf clubs and bicycle frames.

That achievement might not advance pure science, but it would help satisfy demands that Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility and NASA's Langley Research Center make their technological breakthroughs available for use in industry, officials said.

The Jefferson Lab has been under pressure "to demonstrate that we can do something, at least on some time scale, for economic development," said Dr. Christoph Leeman, the laboratory's director.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg for what we can do in the future," said Dr. Jeremiah Creedon, NASA Langley director.

Both NASA Langley in Hampton and the Jefferson Lab in Newport News already are involved in so-called technology transfer projects of various kinds, but yesterday's agreement added a new dimension.

Rather than simply spinning off research technology for commercial purposes, the agreement between the two national research centers will also make the expertise and equipment of each facility available for the primary research needs of the other.

In one of the projects launching the agreement, NASA scientists will use the Jefferson Laboratory's Free Election Laser to create a new, stronger carbon fiber material that might ultimately be used to fashion everything from future-generation computer circuits to improved bike frames and golf club shafts.

But Dr. Michael W. Smith, a NASA scientist working on the project, says the material could play a more primary role as the "skin" for space shuttles that would weigh half that of the current tile-covered, aluminum shuttles.

The carbon fiber material is made of tiny tubes created by focusing a powerful laser beam on a block of graphite mixed with metals. These nanotubes, just one-billionth of a meter in diameter, are created in a plume of high-temperature material that flies off the graphite block when zapped by the laser beam, Smith said.

The tubes, formed by the rearrangement of carbon atoms, in the lab can make a fiber stronger than those made through other processes, but researchers need to develop ways to produce the material reliably, he said.

At that point, industrial companies could then invest several million dollars to build their own laser facilities and produce the material.

In addition to creating new materials, nanotubes may someday be used in such fields as medical and information technology, Smith said.

— Contact Andrew Petkofsky at (757) 229-1512 or apetkofsky@timesdispatch.com