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Ultrafast laser provides unique research opportunities

A unique, interdisciplinary instrumentation grant from the National Science Foundation will have excellent impact on research done in the College of Engineering.

Suchi Guha of the MU Physics Department was the principal investigator on a Major Research Instrumentation award from the NSF, and Heather Hunt of the Biomedical, Biological and Chemical Engineering Department was a co-investigator. The grant allowed Mizzou to purchase an ultrafast, femtosecond laser, which has a wide variety of research applications.

Heather Hunt

Hunt

“The proposal is really neat because it focuses on all the different things you can do with a femtosecond laser, not just from a physics perspective, but also from all different kinds of researchers,” Hunt said.

The purpose of a femtosecond laser in this instance is to probe materials with short laser pulses and record just how the materials respond physically in an incredibly short amount of time.

“Electrons are not stationary — they move very fast, so how do we capture that?” Guha explained in a report from the College of Arts & Science. “One of the examples I give my students is, ‘If you have a ceiling fan and it is going very fast, and you cannot switch it off to figure out how many blades there are, what do you do? If you blink you can determine the number of blades, so you need some kind of pulsed technique to figure out the dynamics.”

Hunt, along with fellow BBCE faculty collaborator Karl Hammond, plan to use the laser initially for time-resolved Raman spectroscopy. Time-resolved Raman spectroscopy is an observational method that utilizes lasers and allows researchers to determine properties such as the structure, reactivity, chemical bonding capabilities and dynamics of a material’s molecules.

“The cool thing about that is you can essentially excite the molecules in very short increments and see how they relax, which enables you to tell something about how the materials are interacting with the surrounding environment,” Hunt said.

Applying for funds to purchase research tools that benefit a wide variety of research likely makes it easier to earn the funds in an increasingly competitive federal funding environment. The more purposes a tool can serve, the more breakthroughs it can help researchers achieve, giving both the funding agency and the institution more bang for the buck.

For Hunt, the laser is critical to her research.

“Basically, we can’t do it at MU without this laser,” she explained. “It’s really hard to do different types of vibrational spectroscopy on materials, especially to look at time-resolves and how materials respond to being probed in very short and very long time periods. This is a major facilities improvement for us.”

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