Cindy Bither
Administrative Assistant
P: (540) 464-7207
F: (540) 464-7443

111 Smith Hall
Lexington, VA 24450

Grant to Fund Laser Telecommunications Research

LEXINGTON, Va., Dec. 20, 2013 – A new research project now under way at VMI could lead to faster cell phone calls and more bandwidth in emergency situations.

Col. Stacia Vargas, professor of physics and astronomy, has been awarded a grant from the Commonwealth Research Commercialization Fund for investigation related to the use of ultra-short-pulse (USP) lasers for telecommunications. The CRCF program¸ which is administered by the Center for Innovative Technology, is a state fund designed to advance, in Virginia, targeted areas of research with commercial promise.

Vargas will be conducting her research in partnership with Tom Chaffee, president of Attochron, a Lexington-based company that produces free space laser systems.

The title of Vargas and Chaffee’s project is “21st Century Laser Wireless R&D with Ultrashort Pulse Lasers.” The amount of the grant is just under $100,000, with an equivalent match from Attochron.

Vargas explained that USP lasers can carry more data than microwaves, which are now used for communication between cell phone towers. A typical speed for microwaves, she said, is 100 to 300 megabits per second, while the speed of USP lasers is measured in gigabits. There are 1,024 megabits in one gigabit.

“The motivation for the USP lasers comes from the fact that we can only get information from [cell phone] tower to tower at a certain rate of speed,” said Vargas. She added that a faster speed would help in emergency situations such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. That day, the nation’s cell phone networks were overloaded because so many people were attempting to call all at once.

“The question is, ‘Can we complement microwave technology with this USP laser technology?’” Vargas said.

As part of her research, Vargas plans to send a USP laser signal between her laboratory in the basement of Mallory Hall and the press box at Foster Stadium. She’s particularly interested in finding out if lasers can travel well in difficult weather conditions such as fog.

“VMI has been really willing to accommodate us,” said Vargas of the planned use of the press box as a mock cell phone tower.

“[The research] is going to be really exciting,” Vargas continued. “There’ a lot of energy and interest in the research. Everyone wants to go faster.”

As her research progresses, Vargas hopes to involve cadets, in physics and other majors. “We have cell phone companies that are interested,” she said. “What a great opportunity that would be for cadets.”

–Mary Price