Posted in | Laser | Fibre Optics

Laser Weapons Could Become Reality with Clemson Engineers' Research

In “Star Wars”, we see the rebels and the empire use laser cannons to shoot it out on the big screen, but soon these weapons could enter the real battlefield with the help of two Clemson University Engineers who are receiving a joint $3.2 million from the Department of Defense.

John Ballato (left) and Lin Zhu are receiving a combined $3.2 million from the Department of Defense to develop high-energy lasers. (Credit: Clemson University)

John Ballato and Lin Zhu are utilizing two different but complementary methods for creating a high-energy laser that could be applied as a weapon.

Both are dealing with the unusual things that happen to light at a very high intensity and are among the challenges that must be resolved before more lasers enter the fight. The military have already deployed a few lasers as defensive weapons to shoot down drones and incoming missiles.

Ballato’s and Zhu’s work is the newest example of how Clemson Researchers have made a name for themselves in laser-weapon research. Since 2011, five have received a total of about $16 million from the Department of Defense High-Energy Laser Joint Technology Office.

In the most recent round of funding, Ballato’s focus is on the optical fiber that channels the light. His task is to work out what materials should be utilized to make the optical fiber so that they do not reduce the laser’s power.

Zhu is looking at diodes that change electricity to light. The key challenge for him is engineering an extremely powerful light beam that also travels in one direction, a difficult combination.

A major part of the laser research is based out of what is generally called COMSET, which stands for the Center for Optical Materials Science and Engineering Technologies at Clemson’s Advanced Materials Research Laboratory in Anderson County.

They have done a spectacular job in adding to Clemson’s already stellar reputation in defense research, especially as it relates to lasers. Their awards are well-deserved and a testament to the strength of their research and the COMSET program.

Stephen Foulger, Director of COMSET

Ballato, the former COMSET director, said that Clemson’s expertise in laser research goes back to the late 1990s.

At the time, all the optical-fiber research was predominantly focused on telecommunication. It was the initial boom days of the internet and optical fiber is what carries internet traffic.

Ballato and other Clemson Researchers hunted for an under-served market and discovered the Department of Defense.

“Time and again we’ve listened to what they needed,” he said. “We’ve written proposals specifically targeting new ideas around what they need. The testament is in the funding. We’ve delivered on those problems. We just keep on doing it.”

Clemson has built its relationship with the military through two wars while increasing its research infrastructure and expertise. COMSET currently has the only industry-grade optical fiber capability at a U.S. University.

The University’s facilities include a two-story draw tower that allows Scientists to develop optical fiber. Scientists complement each other by focusing on various parts of a laser.

Ballato is the J. E. Sirrine Textile Foundation Endowed Chair of Optical Fibers and has received $1.8 million in his most recent round of funding. Zhu, an Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has received $1.4 million.

Both have possibilities to lengthen their research if the Defense Department is pleased with the results.

Other Clemson Researchers to receive funding from the High-Energy Laser Joint Technology Office include Liang Dong, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Eric Johnson, PalmettoNet Endowed Chair in Optoelectronics. Joe Kolis, a Professor of Inorganic Chemistry, has been a main collaborator on laser-focused research.

Anand Gramopadhye, Dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, said the awards that Drs. Ballato and Zhu received are well-earned.

“The awards are a testament to their creativity and the strong rapport each has built with the Department of Defense over a number of years,” he said. “Further, the awards underscore that COMSET is the premier academic resource for optical materials research. I congratulate the team on making COMSET a world-class center with the highest standard of excellence.”

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