Professor uses lasers for Air Force Academy research

Sept. 9, 2013

April Wefler
[email protected]

Taylor Lilly, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, has been interested in airplanes since he was a kid.

“I started watching all the Discovery specials I could and got a little older, and you make models and you do your career project in fifth grade on it,” he said.

During high school, Lilly worked at an airport pumping jet fuel. “I used that time and the money I made pumping jet fuel to get my pilot’s license. After high school, when the opportunity came to choose what I’d like to do in college, I chose the field that gives birth to the airplanes I liked so much and became an aerospace engineer.”

On his first day of college at the University of Southern California, he noticed a sign announcing lab positions available for work study students and later got a job working in the laboratory for the Air Force.

He worked there for eight years and progressed to become a senior, a master’s student and then a doctoral candidate. Lilly then moved from southern California to Colorado Springs.

“I was working for the Air Force, and they didn’t have the equipment that I needed at the lab that I was working at in college,” Lilly said, adding the Air Force asked whether he would be willing to finish the work at the Air Force Academy.

While he was working at the Academy, a position opened up at UCCS and Lilly applied. Now, he is starting his third year here and is working with lasers to do research for the Air Force with Jake Graul, a Ph.D. student in mechanical and aerospace engineering.

“They send aircraft and spacecraft through the atmosphere at extremely high speeds … a lot of friction and a lot of heat. It’s expensive to send things up, just to bring them back down,” Graul said of the Air Force.

Lilly and Graul are researching to make the design and operation of hypersonic, reentry or space vehicles cheaper and safe. “And, if you’re the Air Force, more effective,” said Lilly.

Graul said that someday, the technology could produce 2,000 Kelvin temperatures using just light. The pulse laser is only five nanoseconds in length, five billionths of a second long.

“It’s fascinating to me because we’re manipulating gas temperatures on the kinetic level and increasing the temperature,” said Graul.

Lilly said that what they want to get out of the process is a better understanding of how gases work at high temperatures.

“The lasers are just a tool. It’d be the same as if I ran a wind tunnel lab. They’re really nothing more than a really shiny, high-temperature wind tunnel,” he said. “It’s really hard to get past the shiny aspect.”

Lilly said the lasers they’re working with etch a razor blade and burn through tinfoil. “They can do some pretty nasty things if you’re not careful with them, but that’s kind of the allure.”

“This is the opportunity to try to hit a bullet with a bullet with a bullet at the speed of light. I think that challenge is something that drives most engineers to do something interesting.”