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Campus Scientists Invent Laser Tool Sold by Local Company

By Annette

Ladies, who among us would consider applying a blood-red lipstick without a mirror to evaluate the gloss's proximity to such off-limit facial features as teeth and cheek?

Randy Equall, of Scientific Materials Inc., holds a product for viewing infrared laser beams.
For years, laser specialists have been laboring under similarly uncertain conditions. At issue, for laser operators, is not the wearing of flaming shades of lip cover but the difficulty of adjusting invisible lasers without the aid of a reliable viewing device.

You could say it's as imprecise as primping without a mirror.

"It's a constant pain to keep the lasers aligned and optimized," explained Alex Rebane, an associate professor of physics at Montana State University-Bozeman. "That's what people do in laser labs."

In answer, Rebane and a handful of other scientists have created a credit-card sized sensor that, when inserted into an invisible infrared laser beam, shows a bright green dot the width of a pencil tip. The card, as convenient and portable as a pocket makeup compact, is now being manufactured and sold for $200 by Scientific Materials in Bozeman.

"Basically, it's a sensor that allows you to see a laser beam that you couldn't see otherwise," said Randy Equall, director of technology at Scientific Materials. With 23 employees, the company manufactures and sells components for medical, scientific and industrial laser systems worldwide.

Equall and company president Ralph Hutcheson handed out free samples of the card this year at a trade show in San Francisco. So far they haven't received any orders but plan to place follow-up calls to laser manufacturers soon. Hutcheson expects to sell up to 200 cards the first year.

Admittedly, the company is targeting a niche market--owners of expensive ultra-fast mode-locked lasers. Mode locked means the lasers produce pulses of light rather than a steady beam. Such systems are primarily used in research labs and number just a few thousand worldwide.

But the market could expand if infrared light is used to transmit long-distance messages through optical fibers, Rebane said.

What's more, company and university scientists are working on additional cards that would work on other types of lasers, such as the more-numerous continuous beam lasers. Those include the kind in CD players and grocery store scanners, said MSU chemist and co-inventor Charles Spangler.

Spangler's lab is where the laser card got its start. The bright yellow dye that makes an unseen laser beam visible was found in a vial in Spangler's lab during routine screening of new materials. Spangler makes new molecules that may have special optical properties.

Rebane took the next step. He experimented with the powder and mixed it into a film that he laminated onto a wallet-sized card. MSU filed a patent application, a license was awarded to Scientific Materials, and company scientist Hu Li figured out how to make the film in commercial quantities.

The whole process took an unusually short seven months and wouldn't have happened at all if the MSU scientists weren't involved in research on ultra-fast computer memory through the Spectrum Lab and on new optical materials through the university's Optical Technology Center, Hutcheson said.

Other viewing cards for infrared lasers exist, but they don't show the size and shape of the beam. Nor do they allow the beam to pass through the card so that adjustments to the lasers can be made downstream, Equall and Rebane said. The Bozeman-based card does both.

If widely adopted, the card could improve safety in labs that use infrared lasers. People frequently ignore the risk to their eyes when working with invisible beams, said Rebane, holding a pair of Roy Orbison-style safety glasses to his face as he worked with his laser.

Operators sometimes crank up the laser in order to better see the thin red glow. Damage to the retina is immediate and irreversible, Rebane said. Sadly, eye damage is common in the industry and considerably more serious than an embarrassing smear of red lip gloss.

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