Kansas State researchers work on new kind of laser

Published 22 May 2007

Attosecond technology will help in identifying elements at the mollecular level by capturing fast motion in the atomic world; this will be of great help ijn inspedcting suspicious packages and cargo

Manhattan, Kansas-based Kansas State University is building a new laser-like X-ray source powerful and quick enough to capture fast motion in the atomic world. Zenghu Chang, Kansas State University professor of physics, and his team of physicists and engineers think their efforts will be worth the trouble, and here is why. Possible applications of this attosecond laser technology include identifying elements and this means a laser pulse could be beamed into a suspicious package, for example, to determine if it contains dangerous chemicals.

Chang is the principal investigator on a grant from the Department of Defense for research to improve attosecond sources and exploit the technology breakthrough for applications. The award is $1.25 million per year for three years with a possible two-year extension. Other institutional team member are Texas A&M University and the University of Ottawa.

Attosecond pulses are a special kind of X-ray which can identify what molecules are in something. “Just like each person has his or her unique fingerprints, molecules can be identified by their unique features too,” Chang said. “As an example, different molecules absorb light differently. That is why we see things with different colors. We can tell which one is made of gold and which one is made of silver just by looking at their colors.”

Attosecond pulses are extremely fast flashes of light, which Chang likens to a camera flash. “This is very similar to taking pictures of a moving body with a camera,” he said. “One has to reduce the exposure time using the shutter of the camera for a fast-moving object otherwise the image is blurred.” For their resarch on attoseconds, Chang and colleagues need a short-pulse, high-power laser, and they are developing the technique to control the phase of a laser pulse and then amplify it.

Other possible uses for this short-pulse, high-power technology include machining. Most of the time when cutting with a high-power laser, more than what is necessary is cut, due to its extra heat. With short pulses, the laser is much more precise.

The technology is very new and we’re still looking at possible applications,” Chang said.