Zapping Into the Future

Reedsburg son is pushing the envelope of laser power

Never phone a laser scientist the day before Halloween. Chances are, he's doing something nasty to a pumpkin.

So went the story with Kevin Jordan at the Thomas Jefferson Laboratory in Newport News, Virginia, a place where nuclear physics and electron accelerators are just part of a normal day's work.

"Is this a good time to talk?"

"Actually, no. I'm in the middle of building a pumpkin hurler," said Jordan.

Jordan, a 1975 Webb High School graduate and son of Phil and Dorothy Jordan, Reedsburg, is electronics systems manager for a wildly successful laser project that may revolutionize many aspects of manufacturing technology, food storage and medical treatments in the world.

But on this Friday he was tweaking his pumpkin launcher, and unable to talk.

Monday, as it turned out, was a better time to get details, starting with Jordan's victory in the "open division" of the office pumpkins for distance Halloween competition.

"We went 140 feet in the air, which is respectable. Next year I'm adding a sling." Jordan immediately set out on a lengthy description of the physics involved, how a sling on his hurler will add distance to the flung pumpkin. He's giddy, can't wait.

There's giddiness aplenty at Jefferson Lab these days.

As an offshoot of a $70 million-a-year U.S. Department of Energy mission to study atoms by creating a high-energy electron beam, the Free Electron Laser (FEL) has quickly become the star of the show. Jefferson Lab itself is a fairly new name for this Virginia facility originally called CEBAF (Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facilities).

The Jefferson Lab FEL, the most powerful to date, is fed by the existing electron beam accelerator, which sits in an adjacent building.

FEL started, according to Jordan, as a volunteer project.

"In the fall of '95 the lab requested volunteers. I signed up and the design team was chosen from names in a hat," Jordan said, who's resume includes stints with Fermilab in Chicago, DESY (Deutsch Electronics Syn.) in Hamburg, West Germany as well as eleven years at Jefferson Lab. Jordan is also active as a mentor of high school and grade school science teachers each summer.

Early this summer the JLab (as Jordan calls it) team of engineers and physicists flipped the switch on their muscle-bound FEL and immediately set a world record. At 155 watts, the first zap went 144 watts past any existing laser on earth, and way past the expectations of the people who built it.

JLab director Dr. Hermann Grunder, in a story in the Richland Times-Dispatch, said, "It exceeded what it actually should be doing."

Everyone raised an eyebrow, or two, including DuPont and Northrup Grumman, who have backed-up their enthusiasm with millions of dollars in supportive funding for the FEL project.

By November, the scientists have successfully powered-up to 300 watts, amazing to Jordan.

"We're two times better than we ever thought we would be," he said. "It's pretty phenomenal, it's pretty phenomenal that we can even measure that." None-the-less, he expects the laser to reach 1000 watts soon.

As an electrical engineer with a Professional Engineering License, Jordan has presented papers at physics conferences in the United States, Europe and China. The primary concern at the gatherings has been international control for large accelerators.

At JLab his duties run toward more immediate control. He said he is responsible for the safety systems that protect the electron beam system, the computer system, the laser system and the people who operate it.

"This beam is just awesome. It has wicked, wicked power," said Jordan.

An aside in the Richland Times-Dispatch said a "focused laser beam with 50 watts of power can cut through almost anything."

But cutting through is not the only practical application anticipated for the powerful laser.

Jordan said there are several advantages provided for manufacturing and milling.

"Have you ever worn a leisure suit," he asked? "You know how clammy it feels?" Jordan said this clamminess is due to the uniform surface of synthetic fibers. Cotton and other natural fibers are so much better because their surface is scaly. They feel better to the touch, and hold dye naturally, unlike synthetics which must undergo chemical etching first.

Due to the higher power if the new laser, Jordan (and DuPont) believes it realistic to anticipate cost-effective laser "etching" of synthetic fiber surfaces, making the much more durable synthetics feel and act just like cotton. Not to mention, says Jordan, the elimination of many "nasty chemicals" from the process.

Jordan also predicted laser-micro-milling of automobile fuel injectors and airplane wings, vastly improving fuel mileage and acceleration, and decreasing air friction on airplane wings.

"It would mean millions less in fuel costs for airlines," he said.

He sees irradiated angioplasty devices resulting from FELs, nearly eliminating problematic scarring on heart arteries.

Plastic surfaces, after a specific kind of laser treatment, would not support bacterial life-creating aseptic food storage containers.

Although Jordan thinks practical manufacturing uses are still a decade away, he said immediate experiments are planned. Virginia Power will soon bring JLab a turbine for treatment that may reduce wear and corrosion, saving the utility company $1 million per month of extended life. Xerox is shipping a copier drum for similar testing.

But can the FEL cut pumpkins? The question never came up, but maybe, if you give them a call next Halloween, Jordan and the other pioneering scientists at JLab just might have an answer.