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Old Dominion University's Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology has established a new research entity, the Laser and Plasma Engineering Institute (LPEI), with Mounir Laroussi, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, as its director.

LPEI houses three laboratories run by three of Old Dominion's leading researchers. Laroussi's collaborators, also from the electrical and computer engineering department, are Hani Elsayed-Ali, professor and eminent scholar, and Amin Dharamsi, professor.

Oktay Baysal, dean of the Batten College, said that with today's high-tech products, such as in the biomedical field, "engineering lasers and plasmas have become a critical tool both for research as well as for educating the next generation's engineers." He said the three primary LPEI researchers "form a capable team of experts to help ODU respond to this need."

Just a few days after the LPEI labs were fully operational in May, a documentary crew from the Smithsonian Network, a new television enterprise affiliated with Showtime, visited the facility. The network shot video footage and interviewed Laroussi about his research in plasmas, the highly charged "soups" that have applications ranging from killing germs to creating shields that can allow aircraft to avoid radar detection.

Laroussi will work at LPEI's Applied Plasma Technology Laboratory, continuing some projects that he started during a three-year affiliation with the Frank Reidy Research Center for Bioelectrics, which is operated by ODU and Eastern Virginia Medical School. "With the institute, my mission is broader," he explained. "My work is more than bioelectrics. It encompasses all aspects of plasma science and engineering."

More than five years ago, Business Week magazine named Laroussi as one of the nation's leading experts in atmospheric-or cold-plasmas and he has been building research momentum ever since then, much of it supported by funding from the Air Force's Office of Scientific Research.

During the past several years, his development of a germ-killing cold plasma pencil-a handy device that looks like a small light saber-has been widely publicized in magazines such as National Geographic. His expertise with the use of plasmas in aviation has drawn the interest not only of the Smithsonian Network, but also the History Channel. In several video documentaries, he has described how plasmas can be used to shield aircraft from radar and how other futuristic uses in aviation are also possible.

A project now in Laroussi's laboratory involves a small device that uses cold plasma, and no moving parts, to create a stream of ion wind. A flag of paper taped to the edge of the device actually flaps in the wind. Plasma wind production is not new, especially in applications designed to work in outer space, but Laroussi is looking into applications within Earth's atmosphere that could be a boon to aeronautics. For example, a "boundary layer" of ion wind on the skin of an aircraft might decrease friction and allow the plane to fly at higher speeds, he said.

Elsayed-Ali heads up LPEI's Surface Science Laboratory, which houses instruments that look like large metal octopuses and which can be used to lay ultra-thin surfaces on substrates or create the quantum dots and nanoparticles that are too small to imagine.

As director of the Applied Research Center in Newport News, where ODU and other institutions promote commercial applications of nanotechnology, Elsayed-Ali has won respect for his multidisciplinary thinking. He specializes in physical electronics and is widely known for his proficiency with ultrafast electron diffraction and pulsed laser deposition, which allow researchers to probe nanoscale phenomena and fabricate quantum dots and nanoparticles.

Dharamsi is in charge of the institute's Laser Applications Laboratory, where he and his research assistants focus on the interaction of laser light with molecules, usually in gaseous form. Fascinating work in his lab involves laser-based sensing using wavelength modulation spectroscopy.

This spectroscopy is a highly sensitive and nonintrusive process in which a laser probes a medium to identify its components and properties. By measuring wavelength absorption and other physical results of laser photons interacting with the medium, researchers can pinpoint the makeup of the medium and its properties.

"This work involves measurements by nonintrusive methods, so that the target
being measured is not disturbed, which would spoil the measurement," Dharamsi explained. "This allows for remote measurements to be performed when the molecular species is not accessible either because of toxicity or because of remoteness."

He noted that any measurement requires some sort of interaction between the probe and the sample and, therefore, cannot be perfectly nonintrusive. "However, light provides the lightest touch and so my students and I use lasers to perform these measurements. These measurements and a particular technique involving modulation of diode lasers developed here at ODU provide extreme sensitivity."

As a Distinguished Lecturer of the Lasers and Electrooptic Society of the Institute of Electrical Engineering, Dharamsi has made lecture trips throughout the United States and Canada, and to Europe, Australia and Asia.

This article was posted on: July 3, 2007

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