While COMSET and Clemson’s fiber optics program have earned a top-tier level of respect and admiration, it wasn’t evident at the beginning that it would happen. Fortunately for both, a downturn in the economy was the timely spark toward success.
“When we were first setting up our fiber optics activities during the tail end of the dot-com boom in the late 1990s, most optical fiber research and development was focused on telecommunications,” Ballato says. “We knew that we couldn’t compete head-to-head with the established programs at that time, so we set our sights on an underserved community that needed specialty optical fibers: the U.S. military. We got in with the Defense Department, received funding, delivered top-quality fibers … and they kept coming back. So, when the telecommunications bubble burst in the early 2000s and fiber optics funding in that sector dried up, we were the ones still standing with world-class people, equipment, a dominant partner and best of all, a solid reputation.”
Ballato, who served as COMSET’s first director (2000–2014), says that reputation has continued to grow over the years, and along with it, the center’s clientele list. Among the more than 200 partners who have worked with COMSET during its 18-year existence are 3M, Baker Hughes, Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Raytheon, Sandia National Laboratories, and of course, the collaborator that made it all possible, the Department of Defense (DOD) through nine separate agencies and offices.
For Lawrence Grimes, director of DOD’s Joint Directed Energy Transition Office (recently changed from the High-Energy Laser Joint Technology Office) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a nearly decade-and-a-half partnership with Clemson has proved invaluable.
“Since 2005, we’ve been working with Clemson’s fiber optics team to develop powerful lasers for use in directed energy weapons systems,” Grimes says. “One group, led by Dr. Ballato, has concentrated on creating novel glass materials that can operate at high intensity for long periods without losing strength. A second group, led by Dr. [Liang] Dong, has been identifying photonic crystal designs that permit us to upscale laser power as our needs become more and more demanding. Together, they have dramatically shortened the time from concept to battlefield for our technologies.”
The biggest challenge for fiber optics — and a major focus of Clemson’s research in the field, according to current COMSET director Stephen Foulger, has been finding ways to keep a fiber-transmitted light signal as strong at the end of its journey as at the beginning.
“Due to impurities in the glass of the fiber, some of the signal may be degraded or lost during transmission,” Foulger explains. “To minimize this problem and maximize the performance of optical fibers, you must improve the purity of the glass in the fibers — and that is primarily a materials problem because purity is dependent on the compounds used in the fabrication process and how they are incorporated into the process itself. Since COMSET started out as a materials program and has maintained that strength throughout its history, we are extremely well-suited to attack degradation issues.”
Ballato adds that COMSET has built upon its materials research foundation over time by selectively adding expertise and infrastructure in computer modeling, device fabrication and the science of critical components such as lasers. “Today, we can listen to the fiber optics needs of industry and government, design a fiber from scratch, model its performance before it is built, fabricate it to exacting specifications and test the resulting product to ensure it meets expected goals,” Ballato says. “No one else in the nation can provide that kind of ‘one-stop shop’ service at the academic level the way that we can.”