The most powerful laser in the US right now is being turned on to send its first pulses this week – allowing researchers to gain a new level of insight into the physics of plasmas and particle accelerators.
Known as the Zetawatt-Equivalent Ultrashort Pulse laser System (ZEUS), it produces an ultrashort, extremely powerful pulse of just 25 femtoseconds. A femtosecond is one quadrillionth of a second – or, to put it another way, a femtosecond is to one second what one second is to about 31.71 million years.
As the laser’s capabilities grow, 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 US and among 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 build up: the first part of the laser to be turned on is known as the high-repetition target area, which uses pulses of a higher frequency but at a lower power.
This initial stage will require 30 terawatts (30 trillion watts) of power—an impressive amount, but only a single percent of what ZEUS will eventually be capable of. The power will be used to study a new type of X-ray imaging.
By sending infrared laser pulses from ZEUS into helium gas that then turns into plasma, the researchers want to create compact X-ray pulses from highly excited electron beams. These X-ray pulses have the potential to be used as a highly precise and highly accurate method for soft tissue imaging.
By the end of 2023, ZEUS is expected to conduct large-scale experiments in areas covering quantum physics, data security, materials science, remote sensing and medical diagnostics – as well as studying 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 nuclei surrounded by very hot plasma – we can recreate the microphysics of hot plasma in extremely 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 collision beam geometry, where 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 for to interact back with the second laser pulse.
This results in a simulation a million times more powerful than ZEUS’s actual ability to create with a single pulse.
Scientists continue to make substantial progress in making lasers that are more versatile, more stable and more powerful than ever before – and that means experiments can be carried out on an ever-larger scale.
The team behind the development and launch of ZEUS emphasizes that the laser is available to researchers worldwide. Scientists interested in using it can submit their proposals for approval.
“We look forward to growing 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 page.