Students build high powered laser with Energy Institute

Doctorate student Adam Friss mentors students in building a high power CO2 laser from scratch for STEM after-school program

By Shelby Condit

Adam Friss mentored nine high school students from Northridge High School (NHS) Academy of Engineering in Greeley, Colo. as they worked together to develop a high power CO2 laser from scratch. Friss volunteered with an after-school program called Power Mountain Engineering, that puts high school students together with engineering professionals to build complex devices and bring STEM education to life.

Friss, a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering at the Colorado State University Energy Institute and NASA research fellow, knows a thing or two about lasers. He develops laser-based plasma diagnostics under the advisement of Professor of Mechanical Engineering Azer Yalin. He wanted to show, rather than tell, students how exciting it is to work and to research in his field.

“The students selected the CO2 laser [project], because everyone gets excited about lasers, as they should,” said Friss.
Northridge High School (NHS) student Christopher Gaona tests the CO2 laser that he and eight other NHS students built from scratch. The NHS Academy of Engineering is certified by the National Academy Foundation and plans to make more student STEM projects happen in the future. Photo by Casey Pearson of Evans-Greeley School District.

Friss’ main role was to help take the idea from theory to practice. One of the students, Mark Morales, said, “The days that Adam Friss came down were always the most productive, because we could always ask him.”

“They built it from scratch, researched it, and came up with design conditions,” said Friss.

One group of students worked on the optical rail, which is a large piece of steel that the laser tube and hardware are mounted to. To achieve this, the students had to cut a piece of steel u-channel to the appropriate length and drill the necessary holes. This is one example of how the project gave students an opportunity for real, hands on experience.

“We had to drill holes for screws, buttons, switches, cables, and lights, “said Christopher Gaona, a high school student involved in the project. Gaona added that the process of learning, “consisted of breaking a few drill bits,” for many of the students.

Despite a few broken tools, the students were able to successfully build a powerful 40–80 watt laser. “It was a really good group of kids and they pulled it off,” said Friss who was impressed by the high school students work and ability to complete the technical project.

Nine NHS students participated in the after-school project through Power Mountain Engineering. From left to right: Christopher Gaona, Mark Morales, David Reveles Hernandez, Hugh Kirbie of Power Mountain Engineering, Liam Finley, Alexis Berumen Dela Cruz, Tyler Robinson, Victor Ortega Gutierrez, Keenan Pautler, and Emanuel Perea Merino. Photo by Casey Pearson of Evans-Greeley School District.

Diane Patterson, a STEM and language arts instructor at NHS who helped facilitate the project was similarly impressed.

“This is one of the most rewarding projects I have been a part of in my twenty years as an educator,” said Patterson, adding, “I was amazed at what these students accomplished and hope to recruit two teams of students working on two different projects next year. That means there will certainly be increased opportunities for CSU students to participate as well.”

High school student Liam Finley enjoyed seeing the laser come to life.

“Our laser went from weightless thoughts to a 150 pound behemoth of steel, aluminum, copper, brass, inconel, pvc and glass. We engineered solutions for bursting blocks and leaking pipes…when it was focused, it could basically blast through ceramic and composite tiles.”

Finley asserted they got more out of the project than a laser though. “Yes, we built a high-powered CO2 laser of destruction and awesomeness,” he said, “but we also built a strong, interwoven bond of friendship and trust.”

The custom built CO2 laser can be used for cutting, welding, and drilling and is on display now on the first floor of the Colorado State University Powerhouse. Stop by and see what Friss and the NHS students built!

Read about other Energy Institute outreach efforts here and contact us at for more information on building a partnership.