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Dear Dr. Universe: How do lasers work?

Humans use lasers for everything from scanning barcodes and putting on light shows to performing delicate eye surgery and measuring the distances between objects in space.

Chris Keane.

Cats also like to chase lasers, but I wasn’t sure how they worked. I asked my friend Chris Keane, a physics professor at Washington State University. Keane came to WSU from the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory where he helped work on a laser as big as a football stadium.

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Dr. Universe

New federal grants support energy research

Kelvin Lynn.

Kelvin Lynn, Regents Professor of Physics and faculty member in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, has received a $200,000 award from the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office to advance solar research and development.

Lynn, Boeing Chair for Advanced Materials, and his group are working to improve cadmium telluride (CdTe) solar technology. Silicon solar cells represent 90 percent of the solar cell market, but CdTe solar cells offer a low‑cost alternative. They have the lowest carbon footprint in solar technology and perform better than silicon in real world conditions, including in hot, humid weather and under low light.

Researchers have been working to improve the efficiency of the technology but have been unable to reach its predicted limits. Two years ago, Lynn’s group made a key improvement in the technology by carefully adding a small number of phosphorus atoms during the manufacturing process, improving its open‑circuit voltage, or the maximum voltage available from the solar cell. The researchers are leaders in crystal growth research and technology and their crystal growth and doping methods have led to higher quality materials for detectors and photovoltaics.

The project is part of the Energy Department’s FY2018 Solar Energy Technologies Office funding program, which invests in new projects to lower solar electricity costs and to support a growing solar workforce.

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WSU Insider

A pumpkin-splattering good time

WSU Physics and Astronomy Club celebrates 14 years of tossing squash from Pullman’s highest point.

For the past 14 years, Washington State University’s Physics and Astronomy Club has experimented firsthand with the explosive capabilities of pumpkins.

WSU hosted the club’s annual pumpkin drop Saturday, where attendees painted around 80 of the doomed gourds with an array of brightly colored acrylics before they were heaved from the top floor of Webster Hall, splashing stringy orange innards against the cheering crowd below.

Brian Saam

“It’s the oldest experiment,” WSU Physics and Astronomy Chair Brian Saam said. “Drop two objects and watch them fall at exactly the same rate, regardless of how big they are or how heavy each one is.”

The event offered hot drinks and pumpkin pie to those in attendance as well as variety of physics-related demonstrations.

Many of the demonstrations were interactive experiments displaying the idiosyncrasies of various physical phenomena such as the curious properties of liquid nitrogen and the insistent pull of electromagnetism.

“It’s a smattering of different disciplines throughout the physics realm,” Physics and Astronomy Club President Trevor Foote said. “It’s just a little bit of all the different major groups of physics—electrodynamics, gravity-related magnetism—that sort of thing.”

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Moscow-Pullman Daily News

Technology company started by WSU professors receives grant

New microscope costs less, shows promise for university researchers

A startup company launched by a WSU professor has received a $740,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to continue research and eventually commer­cialize a new, less expensive and easy-to-use microscope.

Rick Lytel.
Matt McCluskey.
Matt McCluskey

Matthew McCluskey, a profes­sor in the department of physics and astronomy, filed for a provi­sional patent five years ago for his design.

His company, Klar Scientific, designed and manufactures a spec­troscopic confocal optical profile (COP) microscope, which collects more information about materials in less time and at a lower cost than what is currently on the market, McCluskey said.

He and co-founder Rick Lytel, an adjunct professor of physics, launched Klar Scientific after hav­ing difficulties gathering data with a standard confocal microscope. Certain types of confocal micro­scopes use fluorescence to find impurities or defects in a sample.

“Fluorescence occurs when you shine a laser on a sample and some molecules emit a different color of light,” McCluskey said. “It is simi­lar to if you attended a blacklight party. The UV from the blacklight may make molecules in paint glow green or red.”

By comparison, McCluskey’s design is better at detecting small defects and uneven textures.

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Daily Evergreen

Dr. Universe: How does sand stick together?

Lauren Barmore.Sand is actually made up of lots of different things. When we look at it under the microscope, we can see cooled lava, coral, seashells, and other kinds of wonderful, colorful rocks.

If you add just the right amount of water to sand, it transforms into a pretty good material for shaping towers, walls, and spires for a sandcastle. At first, I thought the wet sand stuck together because of a chemical reaction. But it turns out this interplay of sand and water creates what scientists call a physical reaction.

That’s what I found out from my friend and physicist Lauren Barmore, a graduate researcher at Washington State University who is very curious about matter and how things work on our planet.

She explained that if you had two rocks and put a bit of water in the middle, the water would be attracted to the rocks and form a kind of liquid bridge between them. One property of water is that it doesn’t like to touch the air. Water would rather hang onto something else.

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Dr. Universe