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August 30, 2004

Laser Consortium

There was a time when lasers were the stuff of science fiction (the word is actually an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation). Today lasers are ubiquitous - everything from grocery store scanners to the pointers used by public speakers to portable CD players takes advantage of laser technology.

Yet there are still lasers that seem more like sci fi than Walkman. And thanks to a $222,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, four colleges, including three area schools, are making plans to share such a laser.

A unique collaboration of chemists from Calvin College, Hope College, Kalamazoo College and University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, partnered with faculty at Purdue University, have obtained a grant to buy a high-end tunable laser system for use in chemical research.

Calvin professor Mark Muyskens (above) says that while this laser system uses the same basic principles as a $10 laser pointer, its sophistication will allow professors at all four schools to do research at their home institutions at a more advanced level.

All of the research projects planned for the new laser system focus on fundamental aspects of the chemistry of gases, some with significance in atmospheric chemistry. Another key feature of all of the research projects, says Muyskens, is to enhance the involvement of college students as undergraduate researchers, with the laser system providing an important tool for training students in advanced scientific techniques.

"The new laser will provide tunable light over a wide range of wavelengths from visible to ultraviolet light," he says. "The ultraviolet light allows us to start chemical reactions, while the visible light allows us to do ultra sensitive detection of molecules. Producing this tunable laser light is technically challenging, requiring a series of light conversion techniques starting with a very high power infrared laser."

Muyskens and his wife Karen (below) share a single position in the Calvin chemistry department. Karen Muyskens says she and her husband have two significant goals as Calvin professors.

"We want to be active as scientists in studying interesting chemical processes," she says, "and we want to train college students to be scientists."

The new laser system will help the Muyskens meet both goals they say.

For the past nine years Mark and Karen have studied the photochemistry of fluorine-containing molecules, including the production of hydrogen fluoride. The new laser will help them continue that research. It also will enhance a new area of research for the duo, the study of gases, including atmospheric pollutants - work that began in 2002-2003 during their sabbatical at the University of California at Riverside.

The laser system will reside at each participating institution for a period of time ranging from three to nine months. The Muyskens will be the first users during the summer of 2005. They will also have the laser system at Calvin College during the 2006-2007 school year.

The consortium plans to specify, bid, purchase and test the laser system this school year.

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Contact Phil de Haan
616-526-6475 (v)
616-526-7069 (f)