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Recent USNA graduate uses NSWC Crane internship to conduct unique high-energy laser detection research

By Sarah K. Miller, NSWC Crane Corporate Communications | July 23, 2020

CRANE, Ind. – A recent United States Naval Academy (USNA) graduate leverages a Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division (NSWC Crane) internship to conduct specialized laser detection research for the Navy.

Ensign Joseph Merkel recently graduated from USNA in May 2020. His research, called “High Energy Laser Detection Through Thermoelectric Generators”, took place at Crane during his summer internship in 2019 and continued at USNA throughout the 2019-2020 academic year. A group of Midshipmen, including Ensign Merkel, was accepted to participate in 2019 summer internships supporting the fleet in Strategic Missions and Electronic Warfare. This was the first year of the partnership between USNA and NSWC Crane.

Dr. Peter Joyce is a Professor in Mechanical Engineering at USNA. Dr. Joyce says that this effort led by Ensign Merkel -- then a Midshipman (MIDN) -- was unique.

“Detecting laser strikes is harder than you think,” says Dr. Joyce. “You can’t easily see them, but laser weapons can pose serious threats to our people and assets. MIDN Merkel’s research was a unique case; he came to us in the USNA research program with a proposal for different ways to detect being struck by lasers. Usually, our faculty crafts research topics for students to take on, but MIDN Merkel came to us with a proposal and it was led by him.”

Lasers, which stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, produce a very narrow beam of light, which is useful in many commercial technologies such as bar code scanners, computers, and other electronics. Lasers have a wide variety of other uses such as in precision tools, to record and receive information, and to carry TV and internet signals. High-energy laser weapon systems are a much more powerful and directed use of the laser technology.

Ensign Merkel’s research specifically evaluated the ability of thermoelectric generators, a newer and more efficient energy production technology, to detect laser strikes. He says other countries have already developed high-energy laser weapons systems.

“We can see it in the news,” says Ensign Merkel. “Lasers are silent and invisible. It can be hard to tell if you’ve been hit until you’re burning up. There was not a lot of research out there about ways to detect lasers. Being able to detect them serves as an early warning system; it can save lives and get our people out of harm’s way.”

Dr. Joyce says USNA faculty and staff supported MIDN Merkel with his research.

“He said, ‘I have an idea,’ and the faculty here at USNA started to fit it into what we were doing and looked for places he could further his research with a summer internship,” says Dr. Joyce. “At the time, there was the effort to bring interns to Crane.”

Ensign Merkel’s research idea had many overlays with efforts taking place at Crane. Dr. Steven Seghi, an engineer at NSWC Crane, was the Principal Investigator of a research effort focused on using lasers to intentionally modify the physical and chemical structure of the surface of materials.

“When we communicated with Dr. Seghi and his lab staff about the idea, Crane wanted to know how they could support,” says Dr. Joyce. “Crane has a lot of state-of-the art lab equipment and we were all thrilled about the amount of data he was able to collect during his internship.”

Dr. Steven Seghi says Ensign Merkel, as an Electrical Engineering Major, was able to receive hands on learning experience with lasers while working alongside some of Crane’s subject matter experts.

“He brought his sensors and gear; we provided the lasers, space to use the lasers, and hands-on training,” says Dr. Seghi.

Dr. Seghi says several Crane employees wanted to provide Ensign Merkel with the best possible experience.

“We wanted to ensure Merkel received a good internship,” says Dr. Seghi. “He mentioned his plan to be a Navy pilot post-graduation, and we have people at Crane that supported one of the aircraft MIDN Merkel wants to fly. We showed him an in-depth behind the scenes look at the aircraft’s systems.”

Ensign Merkel says that his experience at Crane added perspective as he enters his career in the Navy.

“I’m the first engineer in my family,” says Ensign Merkel. “I had never worked in a civilian environment. Researching alongside the engineers at Crane and learning how they work on projects was an awesome experience. As I am entering training to become a Navy Pilot, it was cool to see the technology at Crane that goes into the aircraft.”

Dr. Bryan Woosley, the University Liaison at NSWC Crane, says that the partnership between USNA and NSWC Crane helps develop long-lasting collaborative research while providing opportunities for Midshipmen.

“The research taking place at USNA aligns with several of Crane’s science and technology focus areas,” says Dr. Woosley. “NSWC Crane Civilian Scientists and Engineers advance technology through Research and Development (R&D) efforts that often improve existing capability or provide new capability to the warfighter that expands the warfighter’s advantage in a combat situation. Collaborating with USNA faculty researchers and Midshipmen interns contributes to moving this technology forward. Moreover, the Midshipmen get to participate in the R&D process at the Navy Warfare Center lab and learn how civilian Scientists and Engineers at the Warfare Centers support the fleet by delivering the equipment they need.”

Dr. Woosley says the long-term impact of this partnership is critical to solving future defense problems.

“Understanding and defeating future threats through technological advancements is key to winning wars in the future and keeping our nation safe,” says Dr. Woosley. “We need to understand the warfighters’ needs and develop the technology that provides a decisive advantage for them, so involving the warfighters – including USNA Midshipmen – plays a crucial role in the process.  It’s important that our future Naval Officers understand the role of the Civilian Scientists and Engineers and the resources available to solve the technological challenges they will face in the future while defending our country.”

About NSWC Crane

NSWC Crane is a naval laboratory and a field activity of Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) with mission areas in Expeditionary Warfare, Strategic Missions and Electronic Warfare. The warfare center is responsible for multi-domain, multi- spectral, full life cycle support of technologies and systems enhancing capability to today's Warfighter.

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