Albuquerque Journal--Air Force lab at forefront of microwave, laser defense efforts

By Kevin Robinson-Avila / Journal Staff Writer

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Air Force Research Laboratory in Albuquerque has packed one hell of a punch into some of the most-advanced microwave defense systems on the planet.

Air Force Research Laboratory employee Jeff Brumfield shows a massive autoclave at the lab’s Integrated Structural Systems lab. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/JOURNAL)

Air Force Research Laboratory employee Jeff Brumfield shows a massive autoclave at the lab’s Integrated Structural Systems lab. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/JOURNAL)

The lab, at Kirtland Air Force Base, has managed to jam a full gigawatt of concentrated electromagnetic power into a an armored truck. That’s about one billion times the power of an average home microwave oven, allowing the vehicle, dubbed the MaxPower System, to instantly destroy improvised explosive devices as it cruises through battle zones.

AFRL scientists and engineers showed the terminator truck and other microwave defense technology to the media on Wednesday as part of a novel effort to better engage the public about lab activities and achievements.

The MaxPower System was deployed for nine months of testing in Afghanistan in 2012. Now, it’s parked on the back patio of the AFRL’s High Power Microwave division, where lab scientists are working on packing the same high-power punch into smaller, more manageable systems, said the division’s technologies branch chief, Stephen Langdon.

“The MaxPower System cost about $50 million to develop from 2007 to 2012,” Langdon said. “It was all done at AFRL here in New Mexico. Our engineers thought it up and developed it.”

Every year, the Department of Defense pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into new microwave and laser defense systems, and into advanced satellite technology, which is designed and built in full or part by the AFRL in New Mexico. That, in turn, provides a huge boost for the local economy, said Matthew Fetrow, AFRL lead for technology engagement.

The Kirtland-based lab operates two directorates, one for space vehicles and one for directed energy, with an overall annual budget of $500 million. It employs about 1,900 in Albuquerque, about 850 of them direct government employees, and the rest workers contracted for projects by businesses that partner with the lab, Fetrow said.

Applied Technology Associates, for example — an engineering firm housed at the Sandia Science and Technology Park — is managing about $60 million in contracts with the AFRL.

Large firms, such as Raytheon Missile Systems’ Ktech division and Boeing Co.’s Directed Energy Systems division, both in Albuquerque, are also working on laser and microwave technologies. And many small and medium-sized firms are under contract as well, such as the Albuquerque-based computer software company Stellar Science, which in December won a $7 million contract for modeling and simulation of advanced laser systems.

The lab is focused on defense-related projects. But like most government labs, a lot of its technology has potential commercial applications, something it is now energetically promoting. The lab is participating in forums, or technology showcases, with the state’s other national labs and research universities to attract entrepreneurs and investors interested in taking its technology to market.

The AFRL will also open an office at the Innovate ABQ high-tech research and development center, under construction at Central and Broadway Downtown.

“Our leadership realized that we need to engage with entrepreneurs and the community ecosystem off base, so we’re opening a new technology engagement office at Innovate ABQ,” Fetrow said. “We want to get outside of the fence and interact with the community on a continuing basis to become an integral part of the entrepreneurial culture here.”

Some technology shown on Wednesday is ripe for commercialization, such as a new lightweight, flexible solar array that can reduce costs for powering satellites, and new materials and devices to better protect equipment against extreme temperature variations in space.