Laser focus

Right now, some of the best minds in laser research are toiling away in Colorado’s university labs, searching for answers to questions of the tiniest proportions. But the answers these pioneers seek, often in collaboration, could open closed doors to scientists and change the face of technology.

At Colorado State University, Professors Jorge Rocca and Carmen Menoni are gaining international attention for their laser work, much of which is done in conjunction with their CU colleagues at the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Center for Extreme Ultraviolet Science and Technology. The center, based at CSU and directed by Rocca, has already generated nearly $30 million in NSF funding.

One of the center’s breakthroughs, a tabletop microscope developed by a Menoni-led team, made R&D Magazine’s list for the Top 100 most significant technological advancements in 2008. Using light from Rocca’s own unique EUV laser, the microscope can “see” objects 1,000 times smaller than a human hair. “This microscope is used to image nanostructures that are not visible when using visible light (as with traditional microscopes),” Menoni said. The team is developing microscopic technology that can identify defects at the nanoscale on lithography masks, which can improve the next generation of semiconductor chips.

At the University of Colorado Boulder, Professors Margaret Murnane and Henry Kapteyn are considered world leaders in their work with ultrashort-pulse lasers and ultrafast coherent EUV (extreme ultraviolet) sources.

Through their own company (KM Labs), the two have marketed their ultrashort-pulse–mode-locked titanium-sapphire (Ti:S) laser, which is being used to further research in hundreds of national and university laboratories around the world.

“We develop new types of lasers that generate very short pulses of light,” Murnane said. “We also develop methods to convert these visible lasers into the X-ray region of the spectrum.” By doing so, they open previously locked windows into science at the nanoscale.

Potential applications in nanotechnology are endless, but Murnane offered the problem of overheating laptops as an example. With such tiny structures in today’s increasingly smaller laptops, thermo-management has remained a challenging and unanswered issue. “That’s partly because it’s not well-understood how heat flows in very small structures.” But with their technology, those questions can be answered and potentially influence the design of the next generation of electronics, she said.

At Colorado School of Mines, Professor Jeff Squier and colleagues are focusing on applications for this ultra-fast laser technology. The pulse of his femtosecond laser is a millionth of a billionth of a second long. “That’s powerful enough that we can actually cut with them, and with unprecedented precision,´ said Squier, who is also working in conjunction with CU’s medical school to improve laser eye surgery. Calling the laser technology the “ultimate 3-D prototyping tool available,” Squier explains that he can cut tiny channels through glass.

“Ultimately, we’d like to flow blood through these channels,” Squier said. This would enable his “Lab on a Chip” idea, a project being partially funded by KM Labs. “Then we have other lasers that we’ve mounted on this little chip that we’ve created (like laser tweezers) that can actually stretch the blood cells mechanically.” The goal: With something the size of an iPod, healthcare givers (or even patients at home) can measure properties of blood, Squier said, adding that the range of potential diagnostic applications remains untapped.

Scientists from all schools agreed: Colorado provides an exciting home for laser researchers, and the collaboration between universities boosts success. “Any one of us might not have all one needs to either develop a product or do a research project or compete for a grant,” Murnane said. “So by having a strong connection with each group, which has a unique set of strengths, it’s more likely we can compete internationally.”

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