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 Energy Extremists. Story by Jim Muench.


Most of us know something about lasers -- or at least we think we do. We are aware, for example, that laser surgery can correct eye problems, that lasers read the music encoded on compact disks, and that an administrator with a laser pointer can make PowerPoint presentations particularly annoying.

You might know, too, that "laser" is an acronym for the phrase, light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. And that it is more broadly defined as "a tool that stimulates the electrons circling atoms to produce light energy, which is then harnessed to perform a desired task."

So far so good, say Bob Tzou and Jinn Chen, professors of mechanical engineering at MU. But, they say, the dictionary definition tells only part of the story. In short, there are lasers -- and then there are lasers. Tzou and Chen are working to create new applications for "ultra-fast, ultra-intense lasers," or UULs. These lasers are poised to change forever the way hundreds of high-tech machines do their work.

A typical laser generates a pulse of light for a nanosecond, or one billionth of a second, plenty fast enough for a variety of everyday tasks. Ultra-fast lasers generate pulses a million times more quickly, at a femtosecond, or one quadrillionth of a second. In that time span, light travels only about a third of a micron, or one third of one percent of the width of a human hair.

Tzou recruited Chen from the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M., last year. The UUL section was named one of the College of Engineering's signature programs in December 2005, and the two MU engineers are leading the charge to build an interdisciplinary, federally recognized UUL research center at MU.

"Internationally, there is an enormous effort in [UULs], and what has happened is that a lot of that effort was done by laser physics people," says one of Chen's former colleagues, William P. Latham, technical advisor to the Tactical Laser Systems Branch at the Air Force Research Lab. "What is unique at the University of Missouri is that their center is in the engineering college, and [the research] is done by materials people in conjunction with people in the biology department and the chemistry department. And that is the direction that it needs to go."

Engineers have been developing applications for UUL technology for about 10 years, Latham says, but Chen and Tzou's work is particularly valuable: "Their computer models are well beyond anyone else's. Before we are going to be able to harness an application, we have to model the physics of what's in the material and the physics of the light and then put the two of them together."

The UUL's ability to work at the quantum level could allow for tailoring of chemical compounds by knocking out electrons to create ions that interact. Molecules such as crystalline lattices could be assembled at the quantum level. UULs could be used to create new materials and alloys that might not be possible under normal circumstances. Jewelers, for instance, might be able to create stronger metals.

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Published by the Office of Research.

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