John Ballato twisted a strand of fiber optic cable in his hand, as flexible as fishing line, as fine as a piece of hair and pound-for-pound stronger than steel.
“It’ll cut my hand before it breaks,” he said tugging hard enough that the clear glass cable wrapped around his hands bounced a bit.
Put enough of those thin, almost invisible, cables together in long lengths and they can help direct a laser beam powerful enough to disable a missile, Ballato said.
Ballato and Lin Zhu, Clemson University engineers and professors, recently received U.S. Department of Defense grants totaling $3.2 million for their work on lasers with possible military applications.
Zhu said his work on semi-conductors and diode lasers will help put more electricity behind the lasers while also giving a more precise beam, both of which help to boost the power of the laser.
In a series of office buildings, Ballato, Zhu and more than a dozen other Clemson researchers are refining lasers components, including Zhu's semi-conductors and Ballato's fiber optic cable, that can move light with less resistance and more accurately.
Their work could lead to lasers with enough intensity to zap missiles midair, the engineers said.
A single laser pointer is relatively benign but put 1,000 pointers together and it can hurt someone, Ballato said. Put thousands of even more powerful lasers together and the beams can damage missiles, jets and even ships, he said.
The work could also boost internet speeds by improving the fiber optic cable that is the backbone of communications, Ballato said.
Every bit of communication today, except talking face-to-face or writing letters, is done through fiber optics, he said.
The cables he is helping to develop can help lasers be just as bright after 100 miles as when it was shined into the cable, Ballato said.
Ballato’s lab uses furnaces and lathes with temperatures up to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit to make glass tubes from scratch, condenses those tubes into small rods and stretches the rods from a two-story height to make rolls of the the tiny strands of cable.
The lab uses the same equipment that companies or defense industries would use in much larger scales, Ballato said. That means the prototypes being developed at Clemson could easily be moved into full-scale production, quickly becoming a part of the 200 million miles of fiber optic cable produced each year, Ballato said.
The new Clemson-developed cable is more efficient than the current cables, which have been refined since the late 1990s. He is using new materials and processes to make larger leaps forward than in the past decade, Ballato said.
The research is looking a decade into the future and, while it is promising and working so far, it remains exploratory, Ballato said.
The grants could grow if the work pans out, as it has for past Clemson laser developments, Ballato said.
The grants, and the work done at the Anderson County-based center, put Clemson at the top of laser weapons research field, Ballato said.
Clemson's researchers, largely through the university's Center for Optical Materials Science and Engineering Technologies, have received around $15 million in grants from the Department of Defense’s High-Energy Laser Joint Technology Office since 2011.
Three other Clemson researchers have received money from the same office for their work.
Ballato said the combination of researchers, equipment and more than a decade of laser-focused work gives Clemson a clear edge in the country’s laser research.