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 Energy Extremists. Story by Jim Muench.


"When you go to the ultra-intense, ultra-fast laser, you get an extreme intensity that creates different effects, and it's very fast, so you can do measurements on a time scale that is comparable to the interaction times of various materials and various parts of a material," Latham says. "What makes it so exciting is the lasers are so ultra-intense and fast that the quantum nature of the material may be revealed."

The difference between a UUL and a regular laser comes down to power and contact time. The intense power allows the UULs to get the job done, and the speed means less heat spreads out to damage surrounding material. "If you want to heat up something by one joule, you have many different ways to do it," says Tzou, who goes on to explain that one joule is the power it takes to supply one watt of energy continuously for one second. "You can supply that one joule over one century: You can also supply that one joule in one femtosecond. That's why power is more important to us. That will give you 1015 watts."

The short contact time is also important in biomedical applications for the technology, Tzou says, chiefly because it means less damage to surrounding tissues. "With [less] contact time, the heating time is so short that the passes may not be a factor," he says. "It's just like if you light up a lighter. If you keep your finger on top of it, it hurts. If you just flip your finger over it, you don't feel anything."

Because of the powerful capabilities of UULs, physicists may harness the technology to recreate the extreme physical conditions seen inside a star or close to a black hole, say the MU scientists. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is experimenting with UULs in work that might lead to a fusion reactor, the type of power generated by the sun.

But most uses for the technology are rooted firmly on the Earth. Central to many of the applications is the precision of ultra-fast lasers in cutting various materials, from steel to skin. The speed and intensity results in cleaner cuts that do not heat and thereby damage surrounding material, which in a metal cut creates bumpy imperfections that can be seen under a microscope. In machining parts for a jet engine, for instance, a UUL can drill holes for a turbine blade with much greater precision, allowing a manufacturer to cut the time and costs of filing to fix the rough edges produced by standard lasers or other cutting tools.

But the most lucrative applications may lie in the life sciences. UULs could lead to more precise biomedical testing through what are known as micro-electro mechanical systems (MEMS) and nano-electro mechanical systems (NEMS), which are built on silicon chips. Key to the process is the laser's ability to cut a tiny channel in the chip, thus allowing the MEMS or NEMS to evaluate blood and other bodily fluids one cell at a time.

"Currently you have to go to a hospital, [where] they suck a tube of your blood and the whole process takes a long time," Tzou says. "The channel allows cells to go by one by one so that you can see them one by one. If you see a lot of cells at the same time, then the one with disease may be buried somewhere."

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Published by the Office of Research.

©2006 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.