EMRTC Given High-Tech Laser System, Aug. 3, 2006

by George Zamora

SOCORRO, N.M., Aug. 3, 2006 – New Mexico Tech’s Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center (EMRTC) is the new owner of a $4.5 million specialized laser unit that allows the research division to cut and form energetic and non-energetic materials with powerful, ultra-short pulses of energy that last only a few hundred femto-seconds. A femto-second is one-quadrillionth of a second, or one-millionth of one-billionth of a second (10 to the minus 15 power).

This high-tech system, called a Femto-second Laser Cutting Work Station (FLCWS), was transferred to New Mexico Tech from Los Alamos National Laboratory through a redeployment arrangement made by the Office of Readiness within the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

The laser system consists of an operator console and vacuum sample chamber, optical oscillator, pulse stretcher, amplifiers, and beam-delivery modules and takes up a full two rooms at EMRTC’s Chemistry Research and Development Laboratory.

The ultra-short pulses of high energy delivered by the laser unit allow New Mexico Tech researchers and collaborators to cut, shape, and drill energetic materials precisely, without generating any of the resultant heating, melting, or decomposition of surfaces usually associated with the more common pulsed lasers, whose pulse lengths are 100,000 times longer than those provided b the FLCWS.

“This new capability will be used primarily as a cutting and shaping workstation for experiments typically run here at EMRTC,” says Dr. Christa Hockensmith, department head at EMRTC’s Chemistry Research and Development Laboratory, who is New Mexico Tech’s principal research scientist involved with the redeployment of the FLCWS.

“Other research entities that we partner with, such as Sandia Laboratories and Los Alamos Laboratory, have already expressed interest in using the laser workstation for some of their experiments,” Hockensmith adds.

In addition to precision machining of high explosives, the FLCWS will be used to improve analytical methods for identifying and studying high explosives and other energetic materials — improvements which are expected to result in practical applications such as enhanced detection of explosive devices at airports, borders, and ports. Other studies will examine chemical reaction kinetics and the minimization of reaction energy barriers.

“Ultimately, advances garnered by using the femto-second laser workstation at New Mexico Tech will allow development of entirely new classes of energetic materials that will be more powerful, safer to handle, and more environmentally benign,” Dr. Hockensmith says.

EMRTC’s FLCWS is one of two units designed and built by scientists and engineers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The NNSA, which administers the nuclear weapons national laboratories and plant facilities, made arrangements in April 2005 to have one of the specialized laser units transferred to New Mexico Tech, with assistance from the Center for Energetic Materials and Energetic Devices (CEMED).

CEMED is an umbrella organization comprised of New Mexico Tech, Sandia National Laboratories, and Los Alamos National Laboratories, whose primary focus is on understanding and studying the properties of energetic materials and devices, such as industrial explosives and military munitions.

“The redeployment of this laser unit to New Mexico Tech would not have been possible without the help of lots of folks at DOE/NNSA, Los Alamos, and Lawrence Livermore. I am particularly grateful to Julianne Lebings at the NNSA Albuquerque service center and Ross Muenchausen and John Sanchez of Los Alamos National Laboratory for their help in bringing the laser to New Mexico Tech,” Dr. Hockensmith says.

“The multi-disciplinary engineering and science environment of excellence provided by New Mexico Tech will facilitate applying the laser cutting work station to a wide range of research opportunities,” she adds, “and will ensure that the world-class capabilities of this high-tech laser system will benefit the students and faculty at New Mexico Tech, as well as students and investigators within the State of New Mexico—and, ultimately, the entire nation — through the development of new, high-technology industries.”

A dedication ceremony and open house for EMRTC’s FLCWS is planned for Thursday, August 17, at 10 a.m. at the EMRTC facility, located in the New Mexico Tech Research Park, west of the university campus. Because of space constraints, admittance to the dedication and open house is by invitation only.