Clemson researchers shed light on novel laser materials and systems

August 13, 2012

by John Ballato

Lasers, already ubiquitous enablers of telecommunication, entertainment, consumer electronic, and medical applications, are now moving rapidly into the defense arena.

The United States Department of Defense established the Joint Technology Office (JTO) as a multi-service and agency office to coordinate research and development of high energy lasers (HEL) systems. The JTO supports a wide range of the activities in lasers through funded programs for industry, DoD services and agencies, and universities. Their multidisciplinary research initiative (MRI) program is co-sponsored by the JTO and the Office of the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Science and Technology.

The primary focus of the MRI program is to enhance the capabilities of the U.S. institutions of higher education to perform basic science and engineering research related to lasers, optics, laser interaction physics and advanced concepts necessary for national defense applications.

The competition for the HEL MRI research program is extremely high and, during the most recent university round of HEL MRI funding, Clemson participated in three awarded programs as described below.

Though lasers can be made from gases and electronic systems, considerable attention is being paid to solid-state systems, which includes lasers based on crystals, transparent ceramics, and optical fibers. Solid state systems generally are more robust, lower power consumptive, and smaller in volume and provide a broad range of military “speed-of-light” defensive applications on air, land and sea platforms.

Clemson has done especially well with the multidisciplinary university research initiatives (MRI). To-date, Clemson University’s Center for Optical Material Science and Engineering Technologies (COMSET) has received funding through seven MRIs, far more than any other university.

Our first program, which began in 2005, focused on novel fiber-based lasers. A second program was awarded in in 2007 focusing on single crystals and transparent ceramics. A third program, in 2009 returned to high power fiber-based lasers. A fourth program transitioned to Clemson with the hiring of Dr. Eric Johnson as the PalmettoNet Endowed Chair of Optoelectronics last year. That program is focused on the design and fabrication of advanced optical elements to provide a class of transformational optical components that can be integrated at all levels throughout a high-energy laser system.

COMSET’s success arises from the unique infrastructure, and key faculty hires, in optical materials, fibers, and optoelectronics put in place by COMSET over the past decade thereby creating a nationally unique competitive position to compete for these types of highly visible large-scale programs. During the most recent university round of funding, Clemson participated in three awarded programs.

Clemson’s principal investigators anticipate receiving approximately $1.7M over the next three years to explore the use of advanced optical fibers for high power lasers. If the first three years are successful, a potential two-year $750K extension will be made available for a total of $2.45M over five years.

Fiber-based lasers typically require less power and are more compact and lightweight than chemical, gas and other types of lasers; hence, fiber-based lasers can be used in a wide variety of applications and platforms and bring tremendous benefits to a variety of military operations. Fiber-based laser technology can also be used for many other types of applications including precision machining, optical communications, medical applications, and spectroscopy.

Clemson researchers created this fiber using sapphire

Clemson also has a joint program with the University of Illinois to make optical fibers from novel materials. Specifically, materials such as sapphire and other well known (but not normally used in optical fiber) can possess extraordinary photoelastic properties that make them highly valuable for high power lasers where, typically, the high light intensity interacts with sound waves in the glass and lead to diminished power-handling capabilities.

The initial technical work that formed the basis for this program will appear later this summer in the pre-eminent optics journal Nature Photonics.

Eric Johnson serves as Clemson PI on a joint program with Rutgers University to investigate the use of single crystal fibers for high power lasers. This new research program, along with Dr. Johnson’s past work, will provide key elements in the engineering and integration of high power lasers.

The results of which will provide a class of transformational optical components that can be integrated at all levels throughout a high-energy laser system. These new components are critical for mid to high volume applications of high power lasers in commercial and defense related applications.

Top Image Caption: John Ballato, Ph.D., Director and Professor, Center for Optical Materials Science and Engineering Technologies, Clemson University

For media inquiries, please contact Brian Mullen at or 864-656-2063

Links for further reading:

Ceramic Tech Today: “High-alumina optical fibers get around Brillouin scattering limitations

Science Business: “Sapphire Fiber Optics Deliver Higher Transmission Capacity

Azo Optics: “Researchers Use Common Materials to Make Optical Fibers

Laboratory Equipment: “Sapphires Make Better Fiber Optics than Sand

Computing Now: “Scientists Investigate New Fiber Optics Material

Photonics: “Scalable Sapphire Seen as Superior to Silica for Fiber Optics

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