Most powerful laser in U.S. to start operations in 2022

The 3 petawatt laser will start operations at the University of Michigan in about six months’ time, and researchers are looking forward to it.

The United States built the first ever petawatt laser in 1996 (one ‘peta‘-watt is one quadrillion watts, or 1 followed by 15 zeroes). However, the US has lagged behind ever since. Currently, there are two 10-petawatt lasers in Europe and a 5.3-petawatt laser in China, along with alleged plans for a whopping 100-petawatt laser — a laser so powerful that it could rip apart empty space.

The new US laser will be called ZEUS (Zettawatt-Equivalent Ultrashort pulse laser System), and will mostly be used to study extreme plasmas — a state of matter where electrons break away from their atoms, leaving behind the positively charged nucleus.

This type of phenomenon is important for understanding multiple processes, from astrophysical phenomena such as the jets of hot gas swirling out of a black hole to smart materials that change at extremely fast timescales. Basically, this sort of experiment can help us understand how the universe operates at the submatomic scale.

“We are really looking forward to the exciting experiments that this new facility will make possible,” said Karl Krushelnick, director of the Center for Ultrafast Optical Science, where ZEUS’s construction is almost finished.

In recent years, the field of high-powered laser has progressed greatly, in large part thanks to the work of researchers like Donna Strickland, Gérard Mourou, and Arthur Ashkin, who shared the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing intense beams that can capture fast processes and manipulate tiny objects. The fact that laser components and the necessary technology have become cheaper have also helped sped up the process.

“Extreme plasma made with ‘table-top’ laser technology offers a lower-cost alternative for fundamental research in physics compared to large scale particle accelerators, which cost billions to build,” said Franko Bayer, project manager of the construction of ZEUS. “We are very excited since this support enables the U.S plasma science community, and us at U-M, to make long-term research plans.”

The laser will start off slowly, building power from half a petawatt up to its full capacity of 3 petawatts. The laser beam will be sent in a vacuum chamber, where thanks to a clever setup, the laser will be able to simulate a much powerful laser (the gas in the special chamber will have electrons traveling in the opposite direction) — a million times stronger, to be exact. The laser will be able to send out pulses every minute.

“We look forward to the greatly increased capability and access to the highest intensity lasers that the NSF ZEUS user facility will provide for the U.S. and international scientific community,” said Vyacheslav (Slava) Lukin, the NSF program director for plasma physics.

“From the fundamental physics of light and matter, to powerful astrophysical phenomena like blazars, to compact particle accelerators, the users of the facility will be able to explore a wide range of phenomena while pushing the frontiers of technology,” he added.

ZEUS will be an international facility, allowing teams from around the world to travel to the University of Michigan to run their experiments if they are approved by an external panel of scientists and engineers. Because the project was funded by the NSF, there will be no cost to the users whose proposals are approved.

However, as welcome as this laser is by the research community, it will likely be as good as it gets in the US for quite some time. There are no plans to build a stronger laser for at least ten years to come.

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About Mihai Andrei

Andrei's background is in geophysics, and he's been fascinated by it ever since he was a child. Feeling that there is a gap between scientists and the general audience, he started ZME Science -- and the results are what you see today.

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