Jefferson Lab's Laser Breakthrough Holds Promise for Industry

Daily Press
June 19, 1998

Scientists and technicians at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility have smashed the world record for power from a unique laser.

The Jefferson Lab's free-electron laser surged to 155 watts Wednesday, surpassing the 11-watt mark held by Vanderbilt University for the past several years. The Jefferson team's goal was only 100 watts.

As a result, the manufacturing world is in store for big changes.

"It's the beginning of new technology," said Michelle D. Shinn, research scientist at the lab, which is part of the U.S. Energy Department.

The FEL uses electrons to produce one of the most powerful and controllable light sources ever. At full power, it will be about 1 million times more powerful than supermarket laser scanners.

Laser stands for "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation." A laser beam is a concentrated beam of light confined to a single wavelength.

Because the laser has "tune-able light," it can react with metal or polyester, said Ms. Shinn, who handles the laser's optic controls. That means the laser can soften polyester for textile manufacturers and make metal smoother for industrial firms.

The Jefferson Lab's laser ran twice Wednesday. In the first run, the staff hoped to see the beam of light zip to a record-breaking 100 watts and remain stable. It did, before climbing to a historic 153 watts.

In the second run, the laser peaked at 155 watts.

Kevin Jordan, lab manager for instrumentation and control, was excited about the performance of the laser, which was built in the past two years at a cost of about $22 million.

"Pretty stinkin' cool," a wild-eyed Jordan said with a grin.

Major industries are willing to pony up big money because the FEL offers two major advantages over other tools: it can cut through material faster and more accurately, and it can easily alter the surfaces of materials, such as ceramics, metals and plastics, in a way that either can't be done today or is too costly.

Commercial clients, including Virginia Power, are scheduled to begin experimenting with the FEL next month, said the project's leader, Fred Dylla. Development of a commercial FEL is five or six years away, Jefferson Lab scientists say.

"Within a month, we'll do the first industrial test," said George R. Neil, laser deputy program manager.

In that test, DuPont will try to make a plastic surface more textured. After that, Virginia Power and Armco Inc., an Ohio steel company, will test the laser by treating the surface of turbine blades.

Smoother turbine blades for the power company could save tens of millions of dollars. A laser can reduce corrosion by a factor of 100, Neil said.

Textile manufacturers hope to use the laser to treat polyester, Ms. Shinn said. "It feels like cotton and lasts like nylon," she said.

Fewer than two dozen FELs have been built since the technology was pioneered in 1977. A dozen others are being built.

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