Cindy Bither
Administrative Assistant
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Lexington, VA 24450

Tracking Movement to the Microsecond

Jackson-Hope and Other Grants Fuel Development of New Laser Lab


LEXINGTON, Va., July 29, 2013 – A laser lab located in Nichols Engineering Building is opening up new avenues of research while promoting interdisciplinary cooperation.

Assistant professor of mechanical engineering Maj. Ryan Taylor ’04 and associate professor of physics Lt. Col. Merce Brooke ’94 brought their expertise together to make the lab a reality.

“The lab was initially Ryan’s idea, so he came to me and asked what I thought about doing this,” said Brooke. “We put the proposal together, got the lab set up by January. Now we’ve got preliminary results, and we’ve got some ideas that we’re going to work on over the summer.”

The lab consists of equipment provided through several sources, including a Jackson-Hope grant for acquisition of a Nd:YAG laser – a powerful laser based on yttrium, aluminum, and garnet crystals.

“The Jackson-Hope grant of $77,000 allowed us to get this key piece of equipment,” said Taylor. “VMI as a whole chipped in another $46,000, and the department added another $60,000.”

These funds paid for the customization of a space in NEB for the laser lab, acquisition of a high-sensitivity ICCD camera, and construction of a housing for the entire system.

“You can think of the lab as a really expensive camera system with an even more expensive flash,” said Taylor. “The idea is that you shoot a laser to illuminate a small quantity of gas. When the laser hits the gas, it glows, so you can image the glow and track how it moves.”

The system tracks that movement with extreme precision, allowing researchers to capture data on the order of microseconds or nanoseconds: millionths or billionths of a second.

“We’re still fine-tuning the system. It’s not an easy experiment by any means,” said Brooke. “There are a lot of aspects to coordinate, you’ve got the laser and the camera and everything has to link together and trigger within nanoseconds, so it has been a learning process, but we’ve made a lot of progress.”

Cadets are already taking advantage of the facility. Kelsey McCusker ’13 is using the lab to study heat flow inside miniature structures as part of her honors thesis.

The lab allowed McCusker to study the airflow for a given space by using the laser to illuminate gases while the camera captured data. Imaging the flow of the gases provides detailed information about their position and velocity.

“The laser lab was an integral part of my research project,” said McCusker, a mechanical engineering major. “The laser lab opens opportunities to explore this velocity technique in many different ways, and only a few other schools in the country have this technology.”

While the laser lab is already a powerful research tool, faculty members are looking for ways to further enhance the lab’s capabilities by adding new systems.

“We’ve already applied for a grant of $100,000,” said Brooke.

That grant would allow the lab to perform laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, or LIBS.

“You take a laser pulse and focus it with such high energy that it essentially rips the air molecules apart,” said Brooke. “That produces a flash of light and the light is associated with different atoms and ions inside the gas, so then you can map out the composition of the gas.”

Research opportunities in the lab extend outside the fields of engineering and physics.

“This laser lab can also be used to explore biological or other physical phenomena as well,” said McCusker. “Having this technology has opened a lot of doors for cadets down the road to investigate higher-level research questions not previously feasible at VMI.”

Its use will also reach cadets not involved in research, offering learning opportunities by illustrating concepts taught in the classroom.

“It gives a nice link between what’s on the board and what’s actually occurring in practice,” said Taylor.

John Robertson IV