Ballato, right, works in his lab at COMSET.

CLEMSON — As the only academic facility in the U.S. with industrial-scale capabilities to fabricate optical fiber, the Clemson University Center for Optical Materials Science and Engineering Technologies (COMSET) is making significant impacts in the fiber-optic industry. Now, the center’s receiving its second SG Controls MCVD lathe through an in-kind gift from Molex LLC, further positioning COMSET as one of the premiere fiber-optics facilities in the world.

“This gift isn’t the result of any one of COMSET’s successes. It’s because of the relationship we’ve built with Molex over the past two decades and their familiarity with the quality of COMSET’s work,” said John Ballato, the Sirrine Endowed Chair of Optical Fiber and professor of materials science and engineering. “Not only will this second lathe allow us to maintain the world-class capabilities we’ve built over the last 20 years, it will accelerate our success in the field of specialty optical fibers.”

Headquartered in Clemson’s Advanced Materials Research Lab, COMSET’s capabilities include manufacturing advanced optical fiber through the SG Control MCVD lathe, a state-of-the-art fiber draw tower, and considerable facilities and expertise to develop high-energy lasers and laser technology. These abilities have provided opportunities to work closely with the defense and private and public sectors.

The modified chemical vapor deposition lathe
is used to create a glass cylinder.

For Lawrence Grimes, director of the Department of Defense’s Joint Directed Energy Transition 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 recently told Clemson World. “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.”

According to a recent report published by Allied Market Research, the optical fiber market “garnered $3.4 billion in 2017 and is expected to reach $8.1 billion by 2020.” A growing market also means a growing workforce, and having two lathes will allow COMSET to continue providing students with a one-of-a-kind, hands-on learning experience that can’t be matched in the U.S.

“The work we do with the lathe can’t be replicated at another university and because of that our students are able to participate in research they truly wouldn’t be able to do elsewhere,” said Ballato. “They are part of our research success and help us move the industry forward while learning the necessary skills needed to enter the workforce after graduation.”

COMSET is served by 36 faculty from six departments and home to two of Clemson’s four National Academy members, three endowed chairs and six named professors. It has seeded more than 10 startup companies, earned 10 researchers the National Science Foundation prestigious CAREER Award, and over a five-year stretch has accounted for six percent of Clemson’s sponsored research from less than two percent of the university’s faculty.