Newport News Lab Zaps Record for Laser Power

Researchers at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility vaporized previous records for power produced by a laser.

Thursday afternoon and into the night, scientists slowly cranked up the power to Jefferson Lab's free-electron laser and blew away even their own estimates of its capabilities.

"We had to pull a few people off the ceiling," said Fred Dylla, director of Jefferson Lab's free-electron laser program.

"We're pretty happy over here."

The successful test, in which the laser reached 1,720 watts of output, brought closer the day when industry can use lasers as low-cost materials-processing tools. Lasers have been used for years to weld or drill precise holes in manufacturing, but making them cheap enough to condition large surface areas has remained a challenge.

Jefferson Lab and a co-located facility, the Applied Research Center, hope to use lasers to make patterns and textures on materials including fabrics, metals and plastics that are used by consumers. Today those processes are done by mechanical or chemical means that can be time-consuming or bad for the environment.

Last summer, Jefferson Lab smashed a world record of 11 watts, set by Vanderbilt University. The Newport News facility's laser hit 155 watts, and made incremental progress in following months. Thursday, scientists had merely hoped to break 1,000.

Dylla said the lab has begun working with industry partners to test the practical uses of the laser. DuPont and Northrop Grumman have both run tests of the laser light's effect on plastics.

The U.S. Navy, one of the laser's biggest financial benefactors, is interested in the laser as a defensive countermeasures tool - for instance, confusing the infrared sensors on enemy missiles.

Last year's budget for the free-electron laser totaled $25 million and was funded by the Defense Department, Department of Energy, the state of Virginia and private industry.

To make the laser 10 times more powerful - and thus more practical for industry - will cost $15 million over three years.

"The arithmetic tells you, it's a more cost-effective source of light," Dylla said.