Clemson’s maker of ‘Star Trek’ laser technology honored by peers
CLEMSON — People have been making glass for 5,000 years, but not like Clemson University’s John Ballato.
The materials science and engineering professor leads a team that has been doing research that could come straight out of Capt. Kirk’s logbook. While the team doesn’t make lasers that are sent to the battlefield, it helps develop the fiber optics that go inside them.
“It sounds very Star Trek-ish, but the military has lasers deployed around the world to shoot down a variety of threats,” Ballato said “Everything from missiles to RPGs.”
He was honored with the Class of ’39 Award Tuesday and his name will be etched in a monument at the Carillon Garden.
Ballato’s work carries on a proud Upstate tradition in lasers. Charles Townes, whose research led to the development of the laser, graduated from Greenville High in 1931 and went on to win Nobel Prize for Physics in 1964.
Rajendra “Raj” Bordia, chairman of Clemson’s materials science and engineering department, nominated Ballato for the Class of ‘39 Award, calling him an innovative researcher who does “extremely high-quality work.”
“He is a very deep materials scientist who understands optical materials extremely well and knows all the opportunities — where they can be used and what kind of devices they can go into,” Bordia said.
Ballato said he’s like a chef, and the periodic table is his book of recipes. He mixes a little of this with a little of that, pulls it into a fiber and shoots a light into it, he said.
“It should have this color and it should have this power; and sometimes it actually does,” said Ballato who is director of Clemson’s Center for Optical Materials Science and Engineering Technologies (COMSET).
The U.S. Department of Defense Joint Technology Office has invested more than $10 million in COMSET since 2005.
COMSET has been chosen as the site for a March meeting of the office’s Solid State Laser Technical Advisory Working Group. It’s a strong indication that the group continues to value the domestic optical fiber and laser technology assets Clemson has to offer, Ballato said.
Ballato said he began his training as a ceramics engineer, a discipline that led him into the study of glass.
When Ballato was working on his Ph.D. at Rutgers University, the global demand for information was taking off with the Internet and much of the research money in optical fiber focused on communications, he said.
Ballato moved to Clemson in 1997 and worked with other researchers to start an optics program; no easy task for junior faculty members.
“Doing optical fiber research is extremely expensive,” he said. “The equipment that you need is big, complex and dangerous.”
But a confluence of events fell into the team’s favor.
The dot-com boom turned into the dot-com bust in the late 1990s, leaving a glut of fiber optic cable that no one wanted. But Ballato and his team knew there was more research to be done. They quickly found an underserved sector, a “sandbox” where no one else was playing, he said.
“The Department of Defense was clamoring for specialty fiber,” he said. “They couldn’t get any because it was all going to communications.”
It was a perfect fit.
The research had to be done onshore for security reasons, Ballato said, and the Department of Defense was a client with deep pockets.
“There was nobody else talking to them,” he said. “Everybody else had moved on to other things, and we rode that wave in fiber for 10 years, through two wars and a staggering amount of investment.”
Ballato said COMSET partners with companies to pitch programs to the Department of Defense.
“Clemson is actually pretty unique nationally in the sense that we go from ‘dirt to shirt,’” he said. “We model it, we design it. We study new materials. We make the glasses. We draw the fiber.
“We build the lasers for them at a prototypic level. That’s extremely valuable for our partners. It’s a one-stop shop for them.”
Ballato said the thinking about fiber optics has been the same for 40 years and that he has launched an international full-court press to change the thinking about how they are made. He has spoken in Sweden and Paris and heads to the SPIE Photonics West conference in San Francisco next month.
As the 2013 winner of the Class of ‘39 Award, Ballato’s name will be engraved in stone next to 24 past winners, who represent a variety of disciplines going back to 1989.
Each year, the award goes to one distinguished faculty member whose outstanding contributions for a five-year period have been judged by his or her peers to represent the highest achievement of service to the university, the student body and the larger community.
Ballato said that winning the award in some ways is beyond words.
“There has always been this monument over here with these names engraved,” he said. “You’re always walking past it. To think about having your name added to that list is daunting because there are some extremely impressive people there. Forever.”