Zapping Bugs With `Star Wars' Technology

SPACE-based mosquito zappers are not yet under development. But a piece of Strategic Defense Initiative technology is being adapted to help fight that tenacious adversary, the bug. Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory are studying a laser doppler radar derived from SDI work for use in tracking harmful insects. Packaged in a small device, this radar could someday help farmers defend crops against hungry swarms intent on lunch.

Other SDI technology might lead to prettier gemstones, tougher eyeglasses, faster well drilling, and satellites the size of tomato cans in low-earth orbit. ``SDI research has yielded many spinoffs,'' the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization asserts in its 1989 report to Congress.

``Star wars'' faces tough times. Once President Reagan's favorite Pentagon program, it is being supported with less enthusiasm by the Bush administration. Members of Congress are beginning to treat it like a multibillion-dollar cache that can be raided to pay for other projects. This week the House Armed Services Committee pared $1.1 billion from SDI's proposed $4.6 billion budget for 1990.

Even the program's technical emphasis appears uncertain. SDI's recently departed chief, Lt. Gen. James Abrahamson, has been touting a new interceptor concept called ``Brilliant Pebbles'' as a cost-effective defense alternative, after billions have been spent on other interceptor missile models.

Emphasizing the commercial benefits of star-wars research has been one way the SDI Organization has attempted to strike back.

The SDIO's annual report to Congress, as well as other SDIO pamphlets intended for public persuasion, contain much detail about projects that are drawing on SDI's knowledge.

Medical applications have been the most publicized of SDI's potential commercial uses.

SDI laser technology, for instance, might be used in everything from biomedical research to eye surgery and disease diagnosis. But other applications are less obvious.

For instance, insect control is not the only agricultural benefit SDI officials say might come from their program. Another is a safer method to preserve food.

SDI scientists have developed a high-power linear induction accelerator, analogous to a microwave appliance, that provides a safe nonnuclear way to irradiate food so it can be stored for long periods without spoiling. The Department of Energy is planning for six regional food irradiation centers to use this technology.

A variant of this same technology might make jewelry gaudier. SDI linear accelerators ``could deepen the color of gemstones to enhance their value,'' according to SDIO's report.

Within SDI is a program called the Diamond Technology Initiative that is studying ways of coating materials with thin layers of diamond crystal. Among other things, this could lead to eyeglass and mirror protection and tougher tape-deck heads, says the SDIO.

Oil-well drilling might be made easier by methods SDI is working on to handle powerful electrical pulses.

This ``pulse power'' could fracture and crush rock and work faster than conventional drills.

A star-wars system would involve putting huge amounts of material into space. One spinoff might be an electric rail gun that could shoot tin-can-sized satellites into low orbit, greatly lowering the cost of space use for many civilian applications.

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