They are like expectant parents planning for the arrival of their first child. They are obsessed with every detail of their state-of-the-art nursery, which has the latest in monitoring equipment. They're consulting with all the experts, collecting ideas on how to help their new offspring realize its full potential. They're even lining up wealthy godparents who might someday finance the little tyke's future.
This baby already has a name: the free-electron laser. It's the U.S. Energy Department's long-awaited progeny, and its nursery is the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News. This bundle of light is about to be born amid excitement shared, not only by scientists and engineers, but by Fortune 500 companies that are eager to apply the new technology.
Gestation has taken nine years instead of nine months. The laser itself will be three years in the womb and it took six years before that to get its mother facility ready to support the embryonic project. The $600 million Jefferson Lab, shorthand for the advanced-physics research facility that will give birth to the laser, is operated by the Southeastern Universities Research Association, a consortium of 41 universities.
The free-electron laser is the most promising commercial outgrowth of the Jefferson Lab to date. If all goes well, the laser could give the Virginia Peninsula an emerging industry that doesn't exist anywhere else in the world. Companies that want to take advantage of this new technology will have to come to Newport News.
Recognizing the laser's economic-development potential, Virginia is funding the $5 million building that will house it. Businesses have so far pledged $15 million toward the project. The Navy has kicked in $9 Million and universities are contributing $4 million.
Their combined investments will come to fruition late next year, when the free-electron laser is expected to be ready for the world. Ready means capable of blasting some of the most powerful and controllable laser light ever produced — about 1 million times stronger than the laser that scans milk cartons at the supermarket.
Universities plan to use the laser to study the structure of subatomic particles, and the Navy hopes it will someday shoot down incoming cruise missiles. But it's the private sector that promises to turn this baby into an economic-development coup for Virginia. DuPont, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M), Northrop Grumman and Virginia Power are among the industrial heavyweights that plan to use the laser to develop new product and industrial processes.
They hope that the free-electron laser will address the three main limitations of conventional lasers: It should yield lower per-unit costs, light over a broad range of wavelengths, and light with more power. Research-and-development specialists at these and other major companies believe the laser will become an indispensable tool for everything form micromachining to material fusion. With that in mind, they are seeking a head start in the race to commercialize the technology. At the behest of the accelerator's operators, several of these businesses have taken on the role of godparents.
Will the free-electron laser do for the Virginia Peninsula what the Internet did for Northern Virginia? It's too soon to tell, but economic-development officials are optimistic.
From the outside, the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility doesn't appear very high tech. It consists of several gray and white buildings that look like aluminum-sided trailers built around and oblong "racetrack" that measures seven-eighths of a mile.
The buildings house computers that record the movement of the electrons speeding around the track. The high-tech guts of the facility are in a pit 25 feet below the earth's surface — sealed to an ancient sea floor called the Yorktown Formation. The free-electron laser will be in the basement of a two-story, 20,000-square-foot building inside the electron track.
The process that produces this unique laser beam begins with an injector that excites electrons to an energy level of half a million volts. The continuous electron beam accelerator adds energy, taking the electrons to 10 million volts and velocities approaching the speed of light. The electrons then enter a module comprised of eight cavities cooled to -456 degrees Fahrenheit by liquid helium. In this deepfreeze there is no resistance to electric current, and the electrons increase in energy to 42 million volts.
Then these hyperpowered particles pass through a series of magnets that cause some of their energy to be released in the form of light, which is reflected back and forth between two mirrors through a device called a "wiggler." The mirrors reflect all but 10 percent of the light, and that leftover illumination becomes a laser beam that circles the track every 6 millionths of a second.
In October, workers in white and yellow hard hats were putting up the second floor of the building that will house the six labs where the laser will be directed through a special outlet in the wall. Cooperate, Navy and university scientists will then be ready to do their thing.
Because government funds for research are dwindling, officials at the Jefferson Lab have collaborated with industry at every stage of the free-electron laser's development. It's a matter of survival, but it's also common sense. "We went to IBM, AT&T, Xerox, DuPont and told them we want it to be industrially driven," says Fred Dylla, manager of the free-electron laser program.
Several of the businesses in this laser consortium praise their relationship with the lab, formerly called CEBAF, which stands for continuous electron beam accelerator facility. "One of the great things about working with these folks that it's been a partnership since the beginning," says Michael Kelley, head of the central research team at DuPont. "Jefferson Lab is an example others would do well to imitate in research partnership."
Some businesses that have been involved in designing the free-electron laser are ready to make substantial investments in its further development, but others are a bit more skeptical. "I'm not ready to come there with lots of money," says Patrick Fleming, a research specialist at 3M. The company won't reveal its interest in the laser because of proprietary concerns and pending patents.
Although it is a member of the consortium and has helped design some parts of the laser and the related facilities, 3M has taken a more conservative approach than DuPont. "The [Jefferson Lab] has been pressuring me to bring applications [of the laser] in early so they can show their bosses at the [Energy Department] that these industries are chomping at the bit and waiting to go," Fleming says. "I don't think we're chomping at the bit as much as they'd like us to."
Maybe not, but Alan Todd, Manager of electron accelerator systems at Northrop Grumman, says the Jefferson Lab's efforts to involve industry have been exemplary. "We're trying to do what labs and industry should be doing ... to bring technology to market like this. The road is strewn with other attempts, but it really has been a pleasure with Jefferson Lab."
DuPont and Northrop Grumman are two of the most enthusiastic members of the consortium.
DuPont, with Virginia operations in Hopewell, Waynesboro and Martinsville, has invested $795,000 annually of the past three years. The company, which makes 25 percent of the world's polyester, already knows that excimer lasers can do wonderful things to man-made fibers. Lasers can make synthetic surfaces rougher so they can better absorb dyes and hold more intense colors, and lasers can make fibers smaller and softer to the touch. The free-electron laser has the potential to make this costly and time consuming conversion both fast and affordable.
"One of the very first things I did was an economic analysis," says Kelley, DuPont's research leader. "What would light from a laser like this cost?" He estimates that with the free-electron laser, DuPont could treat fabric for less than 5 cents per yard. "If I can buy the light for that," he says, "all the other numbers will work."
The next issue for DuPont is to produce enough samples to show customers what the process can do and to see how much people would pay for the laser-enhanced material. The company has reserved one of six laboratory rooms that will be linked to the laser. The space will house DuPont employees and their research equipment. "We needed a way to make pretty good amounts by a means that could be scaled up," Kelley says. "That's why we're so excited about what's happening now with the project in Newport News. This will let us find out what's real."
"The logical next step is to build a full [scale] commercial machine," he says. "It would make sense to build the machine near where its mother lives. That's where all the expertise is."
These words are the kind of music Todd of Northrop Grumman loves to hear. His company hopes to build free-electron lasers for commercial use — once the money-making potential becomes clear. "Our investment is in the technology of the laser itself," Todd says. "We want to build this thing both for the commercial industries and the Navy." While he won't say how much the California-based aerospace company has invested in the free-electron laser, Todd allows that "it's not an insignificant fraction of my budget."
Northrop Grumman already has designed a component of the laser, the wiggler, from which the powerful light emerges, A Northrop Grumman engineer also designed the bending magnets of the accelerator. The company plans to station a scientist full-time at the Jefferson Lab starting Dec. 1.
3M is interested in what the free-electron laser can do when it achieves ultra-violent capabilities, but the laser can do when it achieves ultraviolet capabilities, but the laser will only be working in the infrared part of the light spectrum during its initial phase. More time and money will be needed to bring the laser into the ultraviolet range. That's when Fleming says he'll go to his top managers and sell the idea of investing in expensive equipment that would demonstrate "what I think this laser could do."
Until then, 3M plans to continue its hush-hush conceptual research. "The success story of the laser will be how much money we make off of it," Fleming says. "In our terms, that's too far out for me to see ... It has not been written into our business plan. And it won't be until I can convince the marketers and executives that it will make money, and I don't have the ability to do that yet."
Virginia Power, in striking contrast, says the laser could generate both short-term savings and long-term revenues. The more immediate application would be to use the laser to harden the utility's turbine blades treated with the free-electron laser will last seven times longer, he predicts. The utility currently replaces blades every 10 years. "It's a lifetime if you can increase that to 70 years," Reed says.
The savings generated by keeping turbines on-line longer would be nice, but Virginia Power's long-term payoff would come from power-hungry new customers that would apply the technology to advanced manufacturing processes. The laser uses in one hour the amount of electricity a family of four would use in a month Reed estimates.
Greater investments from industry will begin after the free-electron laser has proven itself, says Laboratory Director Hermann Grunder. "It would be unreasonable to request large funding," he says, "until we have shown our tactical expertise in producing laser lights and industrial proponents have shown to their companies that the figures are right."
The economic impact of the Jefferson Lab has already been tremendous, says Dylla, manager of the free-electron laser program.
In 1985, Newport News agreed to invest $4 million in the lab. The city has since seen a $200 million return in the form of contracts to local companies for goods and services to build and maintain the facility and the salaries of the 500 people who work there. The lab has an annual operating budget of $68 million.
Fred Paris of the Newport News Industrial Development Authority says a number of businesses are interested in setting up shop in a nearby research park. "Having a $600 million Energy Department ... facility across the street is a tremendous asset," he says.
The fact that no tenants have signed on yet doesn't worry him. The city intends to spend eight to nine years building the research park, and Paris wants to save space for high-quality laser companies. Newport News and the College of William and Mary are working together to develop the 200-acre complex, which is provisionally called the Science Center at Oyster Point. The first 120,000-square-foot building, now under construction, will house teams of government and university scientists that would work side by side with private-sector R&D engineers.
The Jefferson Lab is in a neighborhood shared by Canon Virginia, Gateway 2000, and NASA Langley Research Center. The city hopes the free-electron laser will be the catalyst that turns this hodge-podge of a high-tech talent into to a critical mass of growing companies based on emerging technologies.
More than that, the long-awaited birth of the free-electron laser could cast the Jefferson Lab in a new light. Virginia's highest hope is for this peninsula project to become a profitable prototype of subatomic synergy among governments, universities and industries.
Quentin Saulter (left), Michael Epps (center) and David Windmueller monitor the fishbowl day in and day out.
Photo: Mark Rhodes
They are the Maytag repairmen of electron-accelerator equipment — the kind of guys who look happy to talk even to a reporter visiting them in their underground computer room.
A visitor is a visitor. The only other company they have is each other.
Walls of computer monitors flash signals, numbers and graphs in green, blue, orange and white lights. The colors unintentionally match the plastic fish another crew has plastered on the glass wall through which visitors are welcome to gawk. The sight, however, is less than stimulating.
David Windmueller, 27, is leaning back in his swivel chair, stretching. His co-operator, Michael Epps, 29, looks equally relaxed. Crew chief Quentin Saulter, 29, is staring at a computer screen. The machine control center, the central nervous system of the $600 million Jefferson Lab has been dubbed the "fishbowl." And on this afternoon, it's about as much fun to watch a fishbowl. But Saulter says he likes it when it's uneventful.
"Boring is good," Saulter says. "If everything goes right, it's boring. When everything goes bad, no, the night's not boring."
Crews like Saulter's keep the Jefferson Lab's electron-beam accelerator up and running on its mission to discover the fundamental nature of subatomic particles. They man the fishbowl 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They monitor the data flickering on the screens of 21 computers that relay information about the subcomponents of the facility. They make sure the equivalent of the refrigerator, microwave, and vacuum of the accelerator's kitchen are working properly.
They monitor the amount of liquid helium keeping the racetrack cool to 2 degrees Kelvin, the temperature where superconducting occurs. They check the state of the microwave system in more than 300 accelerating cavities, making sure they don't get the equivalent of "defrost" when they're trying to "cook." They ensure that the vacuum around the accelerator's racetrack is intact and that all the vacuum pumps, which help the beam go around so fast, work properly.
A smooth-running accelerator allows scientists to delve into the burning questions of subatomic research: How are quarks arranged in protons and neutrons? What gives quarks and electrons the property of mass? And are quarks really held together by gluons?
When a part of the accelerator malfunctions, it usually can be corrected with a few strokes of a keyboard. Occasionally, however, the crew has to suit up in clean white gear to repair an accelerator in a cryomodule.
"The minute you lose focus, something can go wrong," Saulter says.
No one need worry that this crew will become lonely like the unhappy Maytag repairman. They all have more than one job at Jefferson Lab. Saulter, who has a master's in physics from Appalachia University in North Carolina, performs research for the lab on a polarized laser beam source. In addition, the crew needs to be trained rigorously and often during fishbowl downtime.
"It's a wonderful job," Saulter says. "Very time-consuming."
For more information on Technology Transfer or the Free Electron Laser program at Jefferson Lab, contact the Public Information Office at (757)269-7689. Or visit Jefferson Lab on the internet at http://www.jlab.org
© DECEMBER 1996, VIRGINIA BUSINESS MAGAZINE
Submitted: Sunday, December 1, 1996 - 1:00am