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The Free-Electron Laser that came on line in 1998 at the Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News is the little brother of the facility's mile-long continuous electron beam accelerator that debuted five years earlier. But the FEL is creating excitement these days disproportionate to its size, largely because this nifty new laser has a myriad commercial and national-security applications.

R&D Magazine in July gave the Jefferson Lab FEL a "Research and Development 100 Award" for 2005. The awards go to the magazine's pick of the 100 most technologically significant new products. The Jefferson Lab FEL is "new" because power upgrades have been improving and reinventing it throughout its relatively brief lifespan, and a significant upgrade came in 2004.

Dozens of scientists and engineers, including some from Old Dominion University, have experimented and performed demonstrations with the FEL, which is primarily sponsored and funded by the U.S. Navy.

Charles Sukenik, associate professor of physics at ODU, heads an international research collaboration that began a current project in ODU laboratories, but will move soon to the FEL to take advantage of this laser's unique capabilities. Richard Gregory, dean of the ODU College of Sciences and himself a chemist with interests in the materials processing that the FEL can perform, has promoted greater involvement by ODU faculty members. About a dozen ODU faculty and graduate students are experimentalists affiliated with the larger continuous electron beam accelerator at Jefferson Lab.

In making the award to the FEL, R&D Magazine wrote that the FEL in Newport News "is an unparalleled laser in its capability as a light source that is opening up new applications in national security, materials science, photobiology, photochemistry and high sensitivity spectroscopy. These applications hold such exciting research potential that the Jefferson Lab FEL is being copied at a number of institutions."

An FEL accelerates electrons freed of atoms to about the speed of light and then harvests their energy in the form of brief bursts of powerful light. The light is focused into a laser beam of what is called "high average" power that can be tuned to different wavelengths to perform different tasks.

These features allow, among other things, precise micromachining of mechanical, optical and microcircuitry components; the treatment of metals to provide corrosion resistance and increased strength; antimicrobial treatments of packaging to allow the shipment or storage of food without the need for refrigeration, and processing of polymer fibers to produce more durable and natural-feeling clothes and carpets.

The applications have drawn to the Jefferson Lab FEL such companies as 3M, DuPont, Lucent Technologies, IBM, Xerox and Northrop Grumman.

The Navy's interests include those of the private manufacturers, but also the potential for FELs to be placed aboard ships for uses ranging from weaponry to high-resolution electro-optical sensors-like an extremely powerful telescope-to identify targets and for other security purposes.

Researchers often use lasers to bombard atoms with photons-like ping pong balls hitting a baseball-causing the atoms to lose momentum and become super cold. Forces exerted by the laser also can move single atoms and molecules in a vacuum. These capabilities allow scientists to control normally hyperkinetic atoms so that they can be more fully studied.

The Sukenik team is working on a project to use light from the FEL to spatially confine both atoms and molecules at temperatures close to absolute zero. "Our research has already uncovered new and interesting results and we expect this to continue when we integrate the FEL into the existing apparatus. Once we demonstrate that the FEL can be used to spatially confine both atoms and molecules, there are near endless possibilities for studies in both physics and chemistry, and we intend to pursue as many of them as we can," Sukenik said.

"For example, we are very interested in using the FEL to help produce and then confine different types of cold molecules simultaneously. Such molecules would be used to study the control of chemical reaction dynamics at low temperature. In addition, researchers at other universities are interested in using cold, confined molecules to test fundamental symmetries in nature, and there is even the possibility that future studies at the FEL involving ultracold atoms could contribute to the nascent field of quantum computing."

The ODU-based project also involves Mark Havey, eminent scholar and professor of physics, and two graduate students, Chris Lucas and Minarni Shiddiq. Members of the team from outside ODU are Gwyn Williams, a Jefferson Lab scientist; Bob Jones, professor of physics at the University of Virginia, and Donghyum Cho, a faculty member at Korea University.

This article was posted on: August 3, 2005

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