New Laser Beams with Promise

Jefferson Lab of Newport News Breaks a World Power Record

It might not make it into the Guinness Book of Records, but scientists and technicians at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News smashed the world record Wednesday for power from a unique laser.

The Jefferson Lab's free-electron laser surged to 155 watts, nearly 15 times higher than the previous record of 11 watts held by a similar laser at Vanderbilt University.

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

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

Because the laser has "tuneable light," it can chemically react with metal or polyester, said 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 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 reached the pinnacle of 155 watts. Kevin Jordan, lab manger 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 $20 million.

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

Jordan referenced the laser's uses for improving polyester, joking that the team of scientists and technicians were there "to make better-looking bicycle shorts."

Development of a commercial laser is about five or six years away, the Jefferson Facility scientist say. But word is out about the benefits, said George R. Neil, laser deputy program manager.

"Within a month, we'll do the first industrial test, "Neil said. 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.

Neil said the laser can reduce corrosion by a factor of 100. "I imagine Newport News Shipbuilding would like to have their ships last longer than the competition," he said.

And textile manufacturers hope to use the laser to treat polyester, Shinn said. It changes the surface texture there, too. "It feels like cotton and lasts like nylon," she said.

The laser has a capacity to produce 2,000 watts of power, said H. Frederick Dylla, laser program manager. "The next milestone is to reach 1,000 watts this summer, "he said.

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