PULLMAN, Wash. — Research in the physics and chemistry of materials at
Washington State University will soon be enhanced by the purchase of an
extremely fast, high-intensity, solid-state laser. The $580,000 project also
includes a $323,000 two-year grant from the National Science Foundation and
matching funding from WSU.

The new Femtosecond Laser Facility will support work by research physicists,
chemists and materials scientists who use lasers to manipulate, control and
characterize materials and molecular systems. “The basic laser generates
extremely bright, extremely short pulses of light,” said Tom Dickinson,
professor of physics and materials science. “Laser pulse lengths are measured
in ‘femtoseconds.’ A femtosecond is a very small fraction — a millionth of a
billionth — of a second.

The new instrumentation will open up new areas of research and technology in
the fields of materials processing, optoelectronics, biophysics, and
fundamental science of solids and molecules,” the WSU physicist said.

“Last year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry was for using ultrafast lasers to study
rapid processes that occur during chemical reactions,” said Dickinson.
“Materials such as glass, plastics, metals and single molecules interact with
these fast, intense pulses in a completely different way than with
longer-pulsed lasers. The latter heats the target material which often results in
it melting and fracturing. Ultrashort pulses tend to cause bonds to break
without creating the excessive heat, allowing for a much cleaner process.

“In addition, ultrashort laser pulses allow scientists to measure the
laser-stimulated motion of the atoms and the electrons in material, similar to
how a strobe light ‘freezes’ the motion of rapidly moving machinery. This lets
us probe, with high precision, how transformations, chemical reactions and
excitations evolve in materials. Furthermore, the laser system we are acquiring
can be tuned over a wide range of wavelengths to stimulate materials and
molecules from the infrared to the ultraviolet parts of the electromagnetic
spectrum.”

Besides Dickinson, WSU investigators include physicists Sue Dexheimer,
Mark Kuzyk, David Citrin, Kelvin Lynn and others, as well as researchers from
the University of Idaho. Proposed projects include surface modification of
materials, new analytic chemistry techniques, understanding fast biomolecular
systems, nonlinear optical properties of polymers, optical-fiber light
propagation, high-pressure electronic processes, interactions of intense laser
light with polymers and semiconductors, and testing new nanometer scale
electronic devices.

“All of these studies are part of a growing national interest in applications of
physics and chemistry to advanced technology and biology,” said Leon J.
Radziemski, dean of sciences and physics professor. “WSU’s strength in
femtosecond laser experiments started in the 1970s with the fundamental work
of chemist Maurice Windsor. This new facility (at Webster Physical Sciences
Building) will add to our capabilities to address exciting areas of materials
research. It supports a core of excellence and strength in the area of optical
science here at WSU. Graduate and undergraduate science and engineering
students will greatly benefit from use of this top-of-the-line research
equipment.”

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