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KNOXVILLE — Air Force researchers have begun testing a new University of Tennessee laser technology that could save millions of military dollars.

The tests at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, N.M., will show how UT’s Laser Induced Surface Improvement, or LISI, process can reduce worn parts at the Holloman High Speed Test Track.

The 10-mile track, the world-s longest and fastest, is used to test components such as space shuttle parts, ejector seats, and guidance systems traveling up to nine times the speed of sound.

A rocket-powered sled carrying test components is attached to steel rails by braces called “slippers” that wear out and deteriorate.

Dr. Mary Helen McCay, UT Space Institute engineering science and mechanics professor who heads

Dr. Mary Helen McCay

the LISI project, said LISI-treated slippers will be tested. The process uses lasers to coat the surface of the steel slippers with alloying materials, McCay said.

“If the slippers wear severely during the test, a payload costing millions of dollars can be lost,” McCay said. “LISI more than doubled the hardness of the steel slipper and reduced the wear on steel to one tenth of normal wear in laboratory tests conducted at slower speeds.

“If successful on the high-speed test track slippers, it will improve stability and life of the sleds, resulting in significant monetary savings for the military.”

Development of the new LISI technology is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense. The tests at Holloman are funded by a $1 million federal grant to research military laser technologies.

McCay said this is the third straight year UTSI has received the grant. She cited the leadership efforts of the state’s two U.S. senators, Bill Frist and Fred Thompson, as well as Congressman Van Hilleary, whose fourth district includes UTSI.

If LISI’s tests at 3,000 feet per second are successful, tests will be held in January at 6,000 feet per second, McCay said.

“People have come to the Air Force over the years claiming to have solutions (to worn parts). We’ve seen papers where they’ve tried all kinds of things that have not worked very well.” McCay said.

“But they became believers in LISI when we sent them some of our surfaced materials and they tried to drill a hole in it but they couldn’t. So everybody is pretty positive it is going to work.”