Researchers work in the control room for the free electron laser at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facilty in Newport News. Researchers can "tune" the laser to different wavelengths or color of light.
Steve Earley/The Virginian-Pilot

For laser at Jefferson Lab, it's 'pick a wavelength'

NEWPORT NEWS — The search for a weapon that could knock down an incoming cruise missile drew the Navy. A possible cure for adult acne attracted a Harvard dermatologist. The potential for building lighter, stronger planes and spacecraft brought a NASA engineer.

From war to peace, their quests led them to the same place: the free-electron laser lab at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility. The lab owns the world's most powerful "tunable" laser, housed in the basement of a two-story building with white and gray aluminum siding.

Lasers are everywhere these days, from grocery scanners and CD players to surgical tools and precision bombs. But at Jefferson Lab, researchers are pushing lasers even further.

The U.S. Department of Energy facility is better known for delving into the deep science of the origins of matter with its continuous electron beam accelerator. But the laser lab is attracting the military, government agencies and businesses such as Northrop Grumman Corp. and DuPont to develop real-world technology.

Last month, scientists working on a ship-based missile-defense system for the Navy drove the laser to a new power record. They produced a light beam of 14.2 kilowatts, more than 14,000 watts — 14 million times stronger than a grocery checkout scanner.

That's burn-a-hole-through-your-head, cut-through-steel power.

"It has the precision of a scalpel but the power of a chain saw," said George Neil, Jefferson Lab's laser facility manager. "A lot of our job here is to harness and control that power."

Running this powerhouse is not cheap.

"You can come try it out for $1,000 an hour," said Fred Dylla, Jefferson Lab's chief technology officer. "It's really a one-of-a-kind machine."

Researchers can "tune" the laser to different wavelengths or color of light, unlike conventional lasers, which emit light at fixed wavelengths and power. The tunability, Neil said, gives researchers the luxury of testing a range of wavelengths and power to find the best settings for a particular task. A weapons-grade laser, for instance, needs a huge amount of power compared with a bar-code scanner.

In 2005, the laser lab made R&D Magazine's top 100 list for most significant technology. Its editors said: "We're looking for products and processes that can change people's lives for the better, improve the standard of living for large numbers of people, save lives, promote good health, and clean up the environment."

Since the laser began operating in 1998, the Navy has been a top customer. The Navy has contributed about 60 percent of the roughly $90 million spent on constructing the laser and a subsequent power upgrade. A contract with the Office of Naval Research alone has pumped in about $24 million the past three years.

"One of the primary reasons the laser got built was because of the Navy's interest," Dylla said.

The Navy wants to develop a laser-based missile-defense system for aircraft carriers and large surface ships such as destroyers and cruisers, said Lewis DeSandre, program manager for the Office of Naval Research.

It's trying to defend the ships from cruise missiles, which are cheap, fast and easier than ever for rogue nations and terrorist cells to buy. A Navy crew would have about 20 seconds to react to an incoming missile "before it makes a hole in your ship," Neil said. "That's a very scary prospect."

The Navy's current anti-missile systems include rapid-fire guns designed to shoot missiles down at close range, but a reliable laser weapon that could deflect, disable or even destroy incoming missiles offers advantages.

"It's not going to run out of bullets, per se, and it's going to have much higher precision," DeSandre said.

The tunability of Jefferson Lab's laser has allowed the Navy to test optimum wavelengths for firing a beam through the atmosphere. That's important because humid air close to the water absorbs many wavelengths of light, which can bend a beam and render it useless.

The laser's recent power record came at a wavelength ideal for the Navy's needs — 1.6 microns, or about 2 millionths of a meter.

"We're very encouraged," DeSandre said. "There's still a ways to go before we realize the weaponization of this system, but we're on track."

Many challenges remain in developing such a weapon, including making it fit on a ship, making it safe and simple for sailors to operate and making it reliable enough to protect the lives of hundreds of crew members.

Jefferson lab's laser is currently packaged in a clunky machine 240 feet long, 30 feet wide and about 4 feet tall.

And despite the record-setting power recently produced, it is not enough for missile defense. Neil estimates a beam 10 times more powerful is needed.

Such power should be attainable under a plan to upgrade the laser to 100 kilowatts, but Neil predicts it will be at least five years — and, perhaps, never — before a weapons system moves from lab to ships.

"So far, the answer is a firm maybe," Neil said.

While the Navy focuses on military uses, other researchers — including a Harvard University doctor and a NASA engineer — may generate commercial spinoffs.

Dr. Rox Anderson, a dermatology professor at Harvard Medical School, thinks lasers can cure adult acne and zap fatty deposits. His research even suggests bigger potential — laser surgery to clear clogged arteries, associated with strokes and heart disease.

"We're onto something here, and I'm sort of picking the low-hanging fruit," said Anderson, who directs of Wellman Center for Photomedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. "Their free-electron laser is a unique source that allows us to do the early phase of studies to see what's possible. It's sort of a feasibility tester."

The Defense Department financed Anderson's work at Jefferson Lab with a $100,000 grant. It is interested in tapping lasers for military medical programs.

With the lab's laser, Anderson tested the effects of different wavelengths and power levels of infrared light on pig skin and fat, and on human tissue left over after surgeries. He discovered the right setting to destroy fat cells and acne-causing oil glands while leaving skin and surrounding tissue unharmed.

"It's kind of like micro surgery, knocking out the cells that just create the gland," Anderson said.

His work may lead to a breakthrough cure for adult acne, a particular problem for women.

"We have many treatments, but no cures," said Anderson, who helped develop laser hair removal 15 years ago.

Based on test results, he has installed a refrigerator-size prototype laser in his Harvard research lab. Within months, he said, he hopes to begin tests on live animals and, later, clinical trials on people.

The ultimate hope: Going commercial with a laser dermatologists can put in their offices.

Even more tantalizing than zapping pimples, perhaps, is the potential to dissolve artery-clogging fat deposits.

"We haven't done the research, but I am interested in the possibilities," Anderson said.

For more than five years, a NASA engineer has experimented with the free-electron laser to create carbon-fiber nanotubes.

Mike W. Smith, an aerospace engineer at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, believes they could revolutionize air and space travel.

The fibers — strong, lightweight and good conductors of electricity — hold promise for building airplanes and lunar landers. They also could make good sensors, alerting mechanics, for example, to replace a jet's landing gear.

His problem is one of size. Shooting the big laser at a target of graphite powder inside a football-size chamber, Smith now can produce a pint full of the sooty microscopic fibers. He needs to fill buckets.

"The primary goal is to make enough" so that manufacturing a product would be affordable, Smith said.

Scientists plan to test the fibers' durability in space next year on a shuttle trip to the international space station.

Smith predicted that commercial products using small amounts of carbon-fiber nanotubes could hit shelves within two years.

The research being done by the Navy, Anderson and Smith just scrapes the surface of the laser's potential, said Neil, of the Jefferson Lab.

As the lab begins to upgrade the laser's power capabilities for a second time, more and more possibilities appear.

It could lead scientists to new cancer treatments or computer microchips able to withstand heat better than standard silicon chips, opening the door for faster, more powerful computers.

The laser might help companies make parts for satellites no bigger than a hockey puck that could be built in three hours — compared with 300 hours today.

"That's $20 million eight times a day," Neil said. "That'll pay for my vacation in Aruba, for sure."

— Reach Jon W. Glass at (757) 446-2318 or jon.glass@pilotonline.com.