FEL Shines Bright in Debut

Laser Surpasses All Expectations, Predictions

Scientist George Neil "beams" as he describes the absolute success of the initial lighting of the free electron laser (FEL) at Jefferson Lab here.

Earlier this month, the laser achieved first light and broke all records for a laser of its type, hitting 155 watts of power, about 15 times that of any other such laser, surpassing all the lab's expectations by more than 50 percent.

"None of us predicted it would do that," says Neil, FEL deputy program manager for Jefferson Lab's Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility.

"But there's this puzzle: Where did our predictions go wrong? I was trying to understand scientifically why the laser was operating there [at 155 watts]," he says. "So in the back of my mind, in the midst of all the celebration, I was thinking, 'What can it be that is causing it to operate so well?' There's still a mystery out there, and we haven't answered it yet."

Neil expects to find the answer within the next several weeks of data-recording, he says, as the lab scientists learn "what the true limits are, whether our initial assumptions were too pessimistic or our calculations were mistaken, or whether some components of the laser are operating better than expected."

The 14-member FEL team's initial schedule for the laser projected 30 days of operation before the laser would operate at its current level. "My experience was that it requires that much time to optimize the system and to deal with the inevitable problems," says Neil. "But this system lased essentially instantly."

The team has set up the FEL to be run remotely from the control center for the main machine, which runs the CEBAF accelerator, eventually around the clock, providing greater accessibility of the laser to Jefferson Lab's industry partners.

Dupont want to use the FEL to 'lase' its polymers to make the surface fibers mimic the soft, absorbent qualities of a natural fiber like cotton.

Those industry partners hold the key to commercial application of this laser technology. Two companies, textiles manufacturer DuPont and metals manufacturer Armco, will conduct test in the next few weeks, Neil says.

Armco, an Ohio company, wants to use "laser glazing" to smooth the surface of metals, a process which could be applied to machines with moving parts. It also provides corrosion resistance and would be applicable in marine environments.

DuPont will lase its polymers to make the surface fibers mimic the soft, absorbent qualities of a natural fiber like cotton while retaining the easy-care and durable qualities of nylon, and will do it on a grand scale.

"The process should work more efficiently with the FEL, because we have the right wavelength, the right pulse length and the power it takes to do it properly," Neil says. "With the lasers they have available, they can produce about a square yard of material an hour; with the FEL, they expect to be able to produce a thousand square yard an hour."

The first large-volume commercial applications are about five years away, says Neil, although small, high-value-added processes could be done today, depending on the application.

"For now, we are in the 'process demonstration mode,'" he says. "To see if their ideas work with our system, commercial users can join our laser processing consortium and propose a demonstration experiment, which could be public data or proprietary research. A company could put in the laser room any kind of 'black box' they want, record their data and disappear with it. We don't have to know anything about it."

In the future, a regional laser center would sell beam time to different companies to lase parts for them, says, Neil, "sort of a "Photons-R-Us,'" he says.

People will come to our state for this technology. The impact ... in Virginia could be potentially enormous.

In another scenario, Jefferson Lab could license its laser design to a company, who would then manufacture, sell, install and maintain the lasers at their own site. Northrop Grumman Corp., one of the lab's partners in its consortium, is learning about the design so that it can take off on its own to manufacture the laser, with the lab's help at first, says Neil.

In all cases, industry is the main beneficiary of the FEL.

If the DuPont project is successful, those benefits may produce a huge payoff for Virginia, says Neil. If the system proves to be both cost-efficient and reliable for DuPont, "it opens up the possibility of having it installed in textile plants in Virginia. It's a homegrown technology which will benefit the industries within our state.

"If we have a capability here that no one else in the world has, then we've got to lock on the market," he says. "People will come to our state for this technology. The impact on jobs and technology growth in Virginia could be potentially enormous."

Neil doesn't think he's reaching too far, either.

"You have to be farsighted when you have a technology that is this cutting-edge," he says. "We don't even know whether these applications are the best ones. The best one may still be out there. There are so many possibilities."

For downloadable photos and additional text, please consult http://www.jlab.org/FEL/FELpics/FirstLight/FirstLight.html.