The currently most powerful laser in the US will be switched on to send its first pulses this week – giving researchers a new insight into plasma physics and particle accelerators.
The so-called Zetawatt-Equivalent Ultrashort Pulse Laser System (ZEUS) generates an ultra-short, extremely strong pulse of only 25 femtoseconds. A femtosecond is a quadrillionth of a second — or put another way, a femtosecond is to a second what a second is to about 31.71 million years.
If the laser’s capabilities are ramped up, it could eventually be used to study some of the universe’s most exotic phenomena on a laboratory scale: think the physics of a gamma-ray burst or a black hole.
“ZEUS will be the highest peak power laser in the United States and one of the most powerful laser systems in the world,” says University of Michigan astrophysicist Karl Krushelnick.
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ZEUS will start on a smaller scale and then scale up: The first part of the laser to turn on is the so-called high-repetition target section, which uses higher-frequency but lower-power pulses.
This initial phase will require 30 terawatts (30 trillion watts) of power – an impressive amount, but only one percent of what ZEUS will ultimately be capable of. The energy 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 aim to generate compact X-ray pulses from highly excited beams of electrons. These X-ray pulses have the potential to be used as a very precise, very accurate method of imaging soft tissue.
By the end of 2023, ZEUS is expected to conduct comprehensive experiments in quantum physics, data security, materials science, remote sensing and medical diagnostics, as well as study some of the most extreme objects in space.
“Magnetars, which are neutron stars with extremely strong magnetic fields around them, and objects like active galactic cores surrounded by very hot plasma – we can recreate the microphysics of hot plasma in extremely strong fields in the laboratory,” says the 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, which can then be redirected to interact with the second laser pulse.
This results in a simulation that is millions of times more powerful than the actual capacity of ZEUS can produce with just one pulse.
Scientists continue to make significant strides in making lasers that are more versatile, stable, and powerful than ever before — and that means experiments can be performed on ever larger scales.
The team behind the development and launch of ZEUS emphasizes that the laser is available to researchers around the world. Scientists interested in using it can submit their applications for approval.
“We look forward to expanding the research community and bringing in people with new ideas for experiments and applications,” says Krushelnick.
You can read more about ZEUS on its official homepage.