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Femtosecond laser lab comes to Mizzou Engineering

“We see the addition of a femtosecond laser lab as a way to enable University of Missouri research teams to aggressively pursue success at a national level,” said Robert D. “Bob” Tzou, the James C. Dowell professor and chairman in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department.

Long on College of Engineering’s wish list, a generous gift from engineering alumnus Bill Thompson and his wife Nancy made the ultra-fast, ultra-intense laser, or UUL, a reality, and the laser components were installed in a Mizzou Engineering lab in January.

Thompson, managing director and CEO of Pacific Investment Management Company, said that his confidence in the College’s leadership greatly influenced his and Nancy’s decision to make the gift. “Engineering Dean Jim Thompson is clear in his priorities. He has a plan. He knows where he wants to go and how to get there. There’s no mystery involved, and that’s important,” said Bill Thompson. “His vision really makes sense.”

UUL technology, with laser- pulse durations of one quadrillionth of a second, is poised to change the way researchers in a variety of disciplines approach everything from cutting metal to treating diseases like cancer. Prior to the laser’s installation, fully 22 faculty teams from four colleges and 12 departments from across campus had been making plans to use it in their research.

The new laser creates research opportunities in everything from medicine to defense. Potential medical applications include imaging, nano/micro surgery, and traumatic injury treatment. Military applications range from the detection of bio-weapons to the development of lethal and non-lethal weaponry. Also possible with the UUL is the fabrication of high-precision micro/nano 3D structures that cannot be manufactured by other techniques.

What makes the femtosecond laser different from other lasers is its unique capacity to interact with its target without transferring heat to the area around its mark. The result is clean cuts, strong welds, and precision destruction of small targets such as cancer cells with no injury to surrounding materials.

“You have to understand the principles of the materials you are targeting-metal, teeth, bone, cells-to model reactions,” said Tzou. He explains that the wavelengths, infrared to ultra violet, are different for different applications as well, and adds, “The Thompson’s gift gives us the in-house capability to ultimately satisfy our intellectual curiosity.”

A team of researchers from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Yuwen Zhang, an associate professor, and the William and Nancy Thompson Professor, Jinn-Kuen “J.K.” Chen, received a grant from the National Science Foundation to sinter metal powders-turn them into a solid mass with heat, but without massive liquefaction-for various applications, a procedure uniquely accomplished through the capabilities of the UUL. In the past they would have had to depend on booking time and traveling to a national lab to validate their theoretical models.

One such application of the research is improving the bond between implants and bone.

Currently orthopedic implants tend to delaminate under stress or impact. Zhang and Chen’s research is aimed at using the femtosecond laser to sinter titanium powders into an implant for better bone fixation. “With the laser, we can melt a very thin strip around titanium micro-and nanoparticles and ultimately control the porosity of the bridge connecting the bone and the alloy,” said Chen, referring to the laser’s precision. Such a procedure will allow the particles to be bonded in such a way as to conform to the shape of the two surfaces.

Tzou noted that the addition of the lab has initiated additional funding requests that will utilize the UUL’s capabilities. “Highly inspired faculty members are branching out into their own applications,” said Tzou, obviously pleased with both the new femtosecond laser and the faculty’s enthusiasm.
“Writing the check is the easy part,” said Thompson of his gift. “But those guys in the lab, they are the ones that will make it happen. What they’re doing is truly exciting. I’m optimistic that they can achieve breakthroughs in their research with the laser.”