Dream Jobs 2011: Laser Rocketeer Shoots for Liftoff
LaserMotive's Jordin Kare aims to propel rockets and helicopters with light
Photo: Brian Smale
WHAT HE DOES
By day, he’s a technology analyst for a secretive IP-gathering firm. By night, he runs a start-up that wants to loft helicopters—and rockets—with laser light.
Intellectual Ventures and LaserMotive
He gets to blend his twin obsessions—space and lasers—in a company of his own.
This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report on Dream Jobs 2011.
Back in the 1970s, when Jordin Kare was in high school, the laser still seemed a Buck Rogers curiosity, useful for little more than punching holes in razors. But the helium-neon laser he’d built from a kit couldn’t even burn a hole in cardboard. After Kare rode it to science-fair glory—long after—it dawned on him that the laser’s true calling might be to provide steady power at a distance.
"Push that button," Kare says, gesturing at the controls on a man-high glass booth in the Seattle offices of LaserMotive, a firm he cofounded in 2006 . I do, and a helicopter that could fit in the palm of my hand shoots up a guiding pole. A red light marks the spot where an infrared laser shines on a special solar cell, supplying the helicopter’s motor with power.
Who’d want to loft a helicopter that way? "The military could use a quiet UAV, for reconnaissance," Kare says. Today’s robotic eyes in the sky burn gas and buzz like lawn mowers, alerting their potential quarry, but electric motors are so quiet that electric cars may need noise makers, just for safety’s sake. Besides, laser-powered unmanned aerial vehicles can stay up indefinitely.
The glass booth is the type of display that gets hauled off to tech conferences as a kind of roadside attraction. More serious is the meter-wide, four-rotor helicopter that a couple of undergrad volunteers are putting together before my eyes; it could carry a camera with telescopic lenses and other optical tricks, and perhaps even serve as a rough-and-ready relay point for cellular service.
But what Kare really wants is to shine an array of laser beams onto the panel of a heat exchanger on a rocket to send it shooting into space. The idea—so far just a proposal before the U.S. aerospace community—is to economize on propellant by using its mass just for momentum, rather than burning it for energy. Laser-powered rockets could boil mere water for steam—although liquid hydrogen would be more efficient—allowing engineers to make a smaller booster. Kare estimates that in a thriving laser-launch economy, he could send stuff into orbit at a ridiculously cheap $US 550 per kilo. Once the technology takes off, as it were, Kare could turn to worthier goals, such as accelerating starships.
Jordin Kare explains how LaserMotive won NASA's Power Beaming Challenge
Kare sighs even as he says it. He’s only 54, but he has pretty much given up on living to see people ride waves of light to destinations beyond our paltry solar system. That was the vision that animated him back in the ’90s, when he left his long time job as a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which was half-shuttered in the wake of the Cold War. ( H e’d worked there on the Strategic Defense Initiative, which aimed to use lasers the old-fashioned way—to punch holes in incoming Soviet ballistic missiles.) He became an aerospace consultant and started working on proposals for laser-powered craft in his spare time, with occasional bits of funding from the NASA Institute f or Advanced Concepts.
LaserMotive now has a handful of employees and a serious business goal—developing laser power links for airborne craft and other purposes. But it’s also a playground for Kare and his associates, who together round out the arcane set of skills needed here—electronics, optics, software, aeronautics, and, not least, logistics. Kare is himself a master of finding cheap equipment at auction. "I got these for an incredible price," he says, handing me some bubble-wrapped power supplies to strip. A few actually work; the duds will yield spare parts.
It’s a job, and a dream job, but for the past few years, just a part-time job. Most days you’ll find him at Intellectual Ventures, an intellectual property company founded in 2000 by Nathan Myhrvold, a billionaire veteran of Microsoft. There Kare analyzes tech patents and ideas and also thinks up some wild concepts of his own, often in brainstorming sessions held with a shifting cast of smart people, including science-fiction writers. Inspired by one such brainstorm, Kare designed a laser system to track and kill mosquitoes at backyard barbecues—perhaps the only civilian spinoff of the Strategic Defense Initiative (see "Backyard Star Wars," IEEE Spectrum, May 2010).
Kare is himself a sci-fi hound and a collector of sci-fi memorabilia, as well as an aficionado of antique engineering instruments, including a helical slide rule and an Edison-era voltmeter, both on display in his living room . He is also a self-taught singer and songwriter, specializing in tech themes. One notable work is an elegy to the doomed flight of the space shuttle Challenger.
His various passions together indicate a particular cast of mind, which Kare owns completely. "In high school I was somewhat in the Asperger’s direction," he says. "I didn’t like changes in my routine. So it would have made sense to go to school in Philadelphia, where my father was a professor." But when M I T accepted his application, he was too dazzled by its reputation to refuse; he majored first in electrical engineering and then also in physics.
He went on to the University of California, Berkeley, to earn a doctorate in astrophysics, where for his dissertation he considered doing a mass celestial survey to find optical fingerprints that might mark extrasolar planets. However, an advise r discouraged him, arguing that the years it takes for a planetary giant to complete its orbit made the topic risky. Kare headed off for Livermore, but "one of my fellow grad students went on to discover the cosmological constant and is a sure bet for the Nobel Prize in physics," he remembers, with a twinge of regret.
Still, that foray into the b eyond enabled Kare to blend a passion for space with nuts-and-bolts engineering. He takes me to the warehouse office’s second floor and shows me shelves laden with surplus equipment, heat-resistant tiles, and…there it is, at the end, that old helium-neon laser, sitting as mute and meaningful as a child’s stuffed bear.
An abridged version of this article appeared in print as "Laser Rocketeer."
To Probe Further
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