The most powerful laser in the US is currently in operation to send out its first pulses this week – allowing researchers to gain a new level of insight into plasma physics and particle accelerators.
Known as the Zetawatt Equivalent Ultrashort Pulsed Laser System (ZEUS), it produces an ultrashort and extremely powerful pulse of only 25 femtoseconds. A femtosecond is a millionth of a second – or in other words, a femtosecond is for a second what a second is for about 31.71 million years.
As laser capabilities increase, it could eventually be used to study some of the most unusual phenomena in the universe on a laboratory scale: think of the physics of a gamma ray burst or a black hole.
“The ZEUS will be the highest peak power laser in the United States and among the most powerful laser systems in the world,” says astrophysicist Karl Krushelnick of the University of Michigan.
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ZEUS will start on a smaller scale and then build up: the first part of the laser to be operated is known as the high-frequency target area, which uses pulses of higher frequency but lower energy.
This initial phase will require 30 terawatts (30 trillion watts) of power – an impressive amount, but only one percentage of what ZEUS will eventually be capable of. The force will be used to study a new type of X-ray imaging.
By sending infrared laser pulses from ZEUS into helium gas which then turns into plasma, the researchers want to create compact X-ray pulses from highly excited electron beams. These X-ray pulses can be used as a very precise and very accurate method for imaging soft tissues.
By the end of 2023, ZEUS should conduct large-scale experiments in fields spanning quantum physics, data security, materials science, remote sensing, and medical diagnostics — as well as studying some of the most extreme things in space.
“Magnetostars, which are neutron stars with very strong magnetic fields around them, and things like active galactic nuclei surrounded by very hot plasma – we can recreate the exact physics of hot plasma in very strong fields in the lab,” says electrical and computer engineer Louise. Willingale of the University of Michigan.
One area of the laser uses what is known as colliding beam geometry, in which the laser pulse is split into two parts: one of the pulses can then be used to accelerate electrons into a high-speed beam that can then be directed to interact again with the second laser pulse.
This simulates a million times more powerful than the actual amplitude that ZEUS can generate with just one pulse.
Scientists continue to make significant progress in making lasers that are more versatile, stable and powerful than ever before — meaning that experiments can be performed at greater and greater scales.
The team behind the development and launch of ZEUS assures that the laser is available to researchers around the world. Scientists interested in using it can submit their proposals for approval.
“We’re looking to grow the research community and bring people in with new ideas for experiments and applications,” says Krushelnik.
You can read more about ZEUS on its official homepage.
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