Waiting for the Light

Lab's new laser almost complete

It has taken more than three months to assemble, but the most powerful free-electron laser in the world is almost complete.

Scientists at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility hope the laser will attract researchers from around the world and spawn a new type of high-tech industry on the Peninsula.

But first they have to make it work.

The scientists will soon begin a long process of testing and fine-tuning and slowly increasing the laser's power. If all goes as planned, the laser will produce its first, low-powered light beam next spring and go to full power a couple of months later, said Fred Dylla, manager of the laser program.

"We hope by summer to be delivering light to our first customers upstairs," Dylla said.

Upstairs is the main floor of the new 20,000-square-foot building that houses the laser at Jefferson Lab. The building has six laboratories that will receive light from the laser, the bulk of which is located in the basement.

The customers Dylla refers to are corporations, universities and the Navy, which hope to harness the laser's light for various types of research. Companies hope the laser can be used as a manufacturing tool. DuPont, for example, wants to see whether the laser can be used to treat nylon fibers and make them soft and ready for dyeing, while Northrop Grumman wants to see how well the laser works as a high-speed precision drill.

Navy researchers will use the machine to learn about laser weapons, while universities, including Christopher Newport, Hampton and the College of William and Mary, will use the laser for basic physics and chemistry research.

When Jefferson Lab began building the laser in 1994, most of the interest came from businesses that wanted to create new products or manufacturing processes. Lab officials spoke hopefully of the day when companies would set up offices and labs on the Peninsula to be near their laser.

That scenario may still come about, but now lab officials estimate that half the laser's time will be devoted to basic research, mostly by universities.

"As this has come close to fruition, researchers have said, 'I can do this kind of basic science with it that I can't do anyplace else,' " said labspokeswoman Linda Ware.

In all, about a dozen companies and federal agencies and 18 groups of university researchers have plans for using the laser, which will operate 24 hours a day. Jefferson Lab has not yet worked out a schedule, so it is not known yet how much of the laser's time is spoken for, Dylla said.

"We have every anticipation of being sold out," he said.

The companies that will use the laser aren't paying to build it. But to use the laser beam, they will need their own equipment, some of which will be left behind for others to use. The value of that equipment could total $12.5 million, Jefferson Lab officials say.

Jefferson Lab officials say they saved another $10 million by taking advantage of their existing equipment and know-how. For example, the laser requires liquid helium to help it create such a powerful beam, and Jefferson Lab already uses liquid helium in its high-speed research accelerator. With the world's largest helium liquefier, Jefferson Lab didn't need to build another one for the free-electron laser.

"The fastest, cheapest way to build this machine was to build it here," Dylla said.

All of the money to build and house the laser has come from government. The state of Virginia put up $3.6 million for the building and another $1.9 million toward the laser. The city of Newport News has built a $14.4 million office and laboratory building on the Jefferson Lab campus in part to house university and business groups working with the laser. The Navy and the Department of Energy have combined to give $18 million.

The Navy will be involved in the laser project into next year, but Congress and the Pentagon have decided it will not contribute any money after that. Rep. Herbert H. Bateman, R-Newport News, had gotten another $9 million set aside for the laser this year, but there is no mention of the laser in the final defense spending bill.

Jefferson Lab was counting on the new Navy money to upgrade the laser and expand its capabilities starting sometime next year.

"It will slow down our plans to upgrade the device," Dylla said. "But it won't affect what we do over the next year."

When up and running, the laser will produce a beam that is less than half an inch around and about a million times stronger than the beam that reads prices at a grocery store. It will be in the infrared side of the light spectrum and wouldn't be visible outside the machine until it hits something. To make sure the beam is on target for experiments, researchers position their equipment in advance with the help of a low-powered visible laser beam.

A series of mirrors will reflect the beam up to the six labs. Jefferson Lab will be able to deliver the beam to two labs at a time and adjust its intensity and wavelength as needed.

The labs will be separated from the laser by 6 feet of sand and concrete.

Not only does that provide the labs with a stable floor to keep the beam steady, but it also protects researchers from the X-rays produced by the laser below. Putting the laser in the basement and piling dirt along the base of the building prevents radiation from getting out, Dylla said.

Is It Really Free?

* What's so "free" about a free-electron laser?

The word doesn't refer to the laser's price tag; the machine cost some $20 million to build.

Instead, free refers to the fact that the electrons inside the laser are moving through a vacuum, which contains no air molecules. The electrons are said to move freely through the vacuum, without resistance to slow or alter their course.

Lab Partners

Some of the companies, government agencies and universities that plan to use the free-electron laser at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility:

3M
DuPont
Lucent Technologies
Armco
IBM
Xerox
Newport News Shipbuilding
Northrop Grumman
Virginia Power
Henkel Metallurgical Technologies
Christopher Newport University
College of William and Mary
Hampton University
Old Dominion University
Norfolk State University
University of Virginia
North Carolina State University
University of Delaware
U.S. Navy
NASA