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A small company in Midvale with the technology to drill microscopic holes could have a big impact on what we know about Mars.
Optimation, a Micro Electrical Discharge Machining (microEDM) company, is one of the few companies of its in kind in the world, and possibly unique in the United States.
Optimation owner Dean Jorgensen has created precision-drilling technology that allows him to cut holes and openings in super-hard materials with precision to a fraction of a hair's width.
One of his most recent projects was on the Mars Science Laboratory, which will look for signs that the Martian environment has, or still can, support microbial life. It is scheduled to launch in the fall of 2011. On the car-sized, 2,000-pound roving lab, Optimation drilled a tiny opening on the Chemistry and Mineralogy Instrument, making soil analysis possible.
The instrument will collect rock and soil samples that will be turned into the consistency of talcum powder. The Mars Science Laboratory will then put that powder into a chamber and shoot an X-ray beam through it. The X-ray will cause the powder to vibrate and create a ring pattern unique to each kind of mineral in the powder. The lab will be able to differentiate different substances in the soil, and send the results to scientists back on Earth.
"It allows us to have a mobile geologist on the surface of Mars," said Curtis Tucker, lead mechanical engineer for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Jet Propulsion Laboratory .
To focus the X-ray, though, the engineers at JPL needed a very precise, tapered opening about three times the width of a human hair.
"We really had to scour the United States, and we were so pleased in finding this company," said Tucker, a 32-year JPL veteran. "We needed extreme precision and these folks exceeded our expectations. We ran it through our own diagnostics, and the quality was exceptional. The technology is very unique. There aren't too many places that can drill a hole the size of an atom."
Optimation's Jorgensen has been in the microEDM business for the past five years, but started in the laser business in the 1970s.
"I saw a gap in what was needed and what lasers actually could do," he said. "So, I started looking at technologies that could do the job better and more precisely."
Jorgensen has made much of the microEDM technology on his own, rewiring hard drives and creating precision drilling equipment that accurately can drill shapes and holes that are 40 millionths of an inch in size.
With measurements that small, his crowded workspace in Midvale consists of tabletops with microscopes strewn across them. The three-man company also has an electron microscope in a back room. He gets most of his equipment at university surplus sales, and yes, even on eBay.
"It's amazing that you can get some of this scientific equipment that has never been used for a few hundred dollars instead of a few thousand dollars," he said.
In addition to working on the Mars Science Laboratory, he works on everything from sperm count machine parts to brain wave pattern readers.
But he remains proud of his work for NASA.
"It's one of our claims to fame," he said. "They were so impressed with our work, and we're just this tiny little shop in Utah."
NASA's Tucker said he will "definitely go back" to Optimation for future work.
"We tend to build one-of-a-kinds, but we found a company with this unique type of technology," Tucker said. "We're happy to support the development of new technology, and Lord knows, we need these type of high-tech industries."