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Lasers to Iran? Maybe Not

Photonics Spectra
Nov 2000
Stephanie A. Weiss

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- A copper vapor laser and some commercially minded scientists sit at the center of an international technology transfer crisis.

The New York Times reported in September that scientists at the Microtechnology Center of the D.V. Efremov Institute had agreed to sell a copper vapor laser to a customer in Iran. With an average power of 15 to 20 W, the laser was to be used for medical, industrial and scientific purposes.

US government officials feared that one of those purposes might be the separation of uranium isotopes for nuclear weapons. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., has developed an atomic vapor laser isotope separation technology using copper vapor lasers to pump dye lasers and to ionize U-235 atoms for extraction.

So the US government asked the Russian government to cancel the sale to Iran. The Russians agreed to delay the sale while investigating the laser's nuclear potential. But the institute was reluctant to give up the lucrative contract.

In e-mail to the newspaper, the institute's director, Boris Yatsenko, responded that because the laser is being sold for nonmilitary purposes, "we do not need government approval."

A White House official responded to the newspaper: "I think the institute's e-mail indicates some of the problems that the Russian government may be having in trying to rein in some of the more cash-strapped scientific centers."

Copper vapor lasers are also useful for such nonmilitary applications as particle image velocimetry and micromachining. A typical copper vapor laser for micromachining would have an average power around 15 to 20 W and peak power -- assuming a repetition rate of 4 to 20 kHz and a pulse width around 30 ns -- in the tens of kilowatts.

The Livermore isotope separation laser technology would have required hundreds of kilowatts of copper vapor laser pump power to produce tens of kilowatts of dye laser output power. And by 1998, Livermore scientists were working to replace the copper vapor lasers with frequency-doubled diode-pumped Nd:YAG lasers to increase reliability and efficiency. Then in mid-1999, the US Enrichment Corp. killed the 26-year research project, saying it was not cost-effective when compared with other isotope-separation schemes.


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