A check for $3 million from the Air Force to develop a new type of laser at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility is on the way.
The ultraviolet laser would help produce better miniature components for micro-satellites, which are used much like normal-sized satellites but are easier to mass produce and launch.
The money will actually go into two projects: $2 million to develop an extension on the lab's existing free-electron laser that would produce the ultraviolet laser; and $1 million to develop a process using ultraviolet light to manufacture micro-satellites.
Henry Helvajian is senior scientist for Aerospace Corp., a California-based nonprofit corporation that focuses on developing space-related hardware for the government at the lowest cost.
He was brought in to develop the manufacturing process, creating micro-satellites that offer a variety of benefits over their comparatively gargantuan counterparts.
The orbitals represent emerging technology called microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS, computers that build on existing microelectronics to create complex machines at micron sizes, one-millionth of a meter.
"This is stuff that's smaller than a human hair," Helvajian said.
MEMS are already used in a variety of machines, from airbags to inkjet printers to pacemakers. Introduced in the early 1990s, the industry has since become a $2 billion sector, according to the MEMS Industry Group, a trade organization formed in January. The market is expected to quadruple in 2004.
Making those systems — building the minithrusters and motors needed to make micro-satellites work — is where an ultraviolet laser comes in handy.
The Air Force approved the program in March, but Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld began reassessing the military's projects earlier this year.
That's meant pushing back providing funding, and money expected to arrive at the beginning of April for the new laser still hasn't materialized.
The dual projects are expected to take about two years to complete, costing a total of $8 million.
Interest in ultraviolet lasers comes because they can cut into hard-to-work-with materials such as semiconductors, insulators and ceramics.
That's because ultraviolet light acts like the Ginsu knife of the machining world because it can vaporize or chemically change the surfaces of materials.
"UV light is absorbed by almost every material, so it's a very good means of machining any material," said Fred Dylla, program manager of the free-electron laser at Jefferson Lab.
Most micro-systems today are built from silicon wafers, which don't stand up to wear and tear as well as material such as ceramics, Helvajian said. Ceramic material is just much more difficult to work with.
Helvajian has already been making some satellite components using less-powerful ultraviolet lasers, creating machines for satellites about the size of two decks of cards and weighing less than a pound.
The proposed laser would produce about a kilowatt of ultraviolet light, compared to current ultraviolet lasers that reach one watt in laboratories or 100 watts in commercial users.
"Right now, it would take a week to make one (component) if we really work hard," Helvajian said. "There's no reason you couldn't reduce it all to a few hours."
With a laser that can produce 10 to 1,000 times the power currently available, there'd be little wait on finding other uses for it, Dylla said.
All that's needed now is the money to build it so they will come.
"We expect it any day now," Dylla said. "We will start up some time this month."
— Michael Hines can be reached at 247-4760 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Submitted: Wednesday, June 6, 2001 - 11:00pm