Let There Be (Electron) Light

TECHNOLOGY Virginia, Premiere Issue

The world's most powerful free-electron laser, located in Newport News, was born of a scientific mission. Private industry, however, may derive secondary benefits from this complex technology: better manufacturing techniques and the prospect of creating superior consumer products.

The Free-Electron Laser (FEL) program is part of the Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, a $600 million nuclear physics laboratory charged with probing the atomic structure of matter. The laser was constructed as a public-private partnership to discover commercial uses for government-backed scientific research.

Free-electron lasers — there are fewer than two dozen in the world — offer manufacturers the promise of treating various surfaces using a powerful but highly controllable light beam. Until recently, lasers were neither powerful enough nor efficient enough to perform basic manufacturing tasks.

Jefferson Lab's FEL may yield improvements such as more corrosion-resistant metals, more durable synthetic fibers and advanced materials and components for electronics and microtechnologies.

"This technology is potentially an important industrial tool, because it could replace the wet chemistry processes presently used to treat the surface of materials, including metals and polymers," says Dr. Fred Dylla, FEL director.

Virginia Power, for instance is part of an industry working group studying the technology's capacity for "laser glazing" a method of putting a smooth top layer on metal turbine blades to prolong their life and aid efficiency.

Jefferson Lab also is pioneering work in accelerator-related technology for medical imaging. The lab collaborated with a spin-off company, Dilon Technologies, to perfect the Gamma Camera, a device that screens false-positive and false-negative readings of standard mammography imaging to detect breast cancer. A diagnostic aid, the innovation may help women avoid unnecessary biopsies. Dilon Technologies, housed on the Jefferson Lab campus, won FDA approval for the product and is gearing up to begin manufacturing.