Saving laser research

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The main amplifiers at the OMEGA EP laser at the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics. (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

 

After great uncertainty over its future in the last year, the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics is back in the game, exhibiting its prowess.

LLE joins eight other high-intensity laser facilities across the country in a research network called LaserNet US. The collaboration provides scientists in the United States with increased access to ultrafast lasers like the Omega EP at the Laser Lab in Rochester.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Fusion Energy Sciences within the Office of Science, the project is slated to receive $6.8 million over the next two years.

LaserNet US is a collaboration of six academic and two national laboratory high-intensity laser facilities. In addition to UR, universities in the network include the University of Texas at Austin, Ohio State University, Colorado State University, the University of Michigan and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

These facilities support the most powerful lasers in the United States, including lasers with powers approaching or exceeding a petawatt. Such lasers generate light with nearly 100 times the output of all the world’s power plants, UR says, but only in the briefest of bursts, shorter than a tenth of a trillionth of a second.

Mike Campbell, director of the Laser Lab, says the local facility will bring energy, intensity, versatility and diagnostic capability to the network.

LaserNet US was established in response to the National Academy of Sciences report titled “Opportunities in Intense Ultrafast Lasers: Reaching for the Brightest Light,” which declared that the United States is losing ground in a second laser revolution of highly intense, ultrafast lasers that have broad applications in manufacturing, medicine and national security.

The report found 80 percent to 90 percent of the high-intensity laser systems are overseas, and all of the highest-power research lasers currently in construction or already built are overseas as well. No single federal agency or cross-agency effort in this nation acts as a steward of this type of research.

“Programs are carried out under sponsorship of several different federal agencies according to their various missions and without the overall coordination that exists in Europe,” NAS reports. “To increase integration and coordination in this field, the committee recommended that research agencies, including the U.S. Department of Defense, DOE, National Science Foundation, and others, engage the scientific stakeholders within the network to define what facilities and laser parameters will best serve research needs, emphasizing parameters beyond the current state of the art in areas critical to frontier science.”

LaserNet US aims to meet the report’s recommendations establishing the infrastructure and accessibility of midscale laser facilities across the country with high-field lasers, matter, and plasma research and development, officials at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln say. That university hosted the first annual LaserNet US meeting a few months ago.

High-intensity lasers, like the one in Rochester, have several applications in research, manufacturing and medicine. UR cites examples where lasers can be used to precisely cut materials or deliver focused radiation therapy for cancerous tumors. The lasers use a technology called chirped pulse amplification, which was pioneered at the Laser Lab in 1980s by Donna Strickland and Gérard Mourou, winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics.

Despite decades of groundbreaking work, the Laser Lab this year had to consider the possibility of closing its doors. In February, the Trump Administration proposed a $30 million cut to the lab, a $126 million cut to the Inertial Confinement Fusion program at the National Nuclear Security Administration.

The ICF program supports three major, world-leading research facilities: the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Z Facility at Sandia National Laboratory and the OMEGA Laser Facility at the LLE. About 80 percent of ICF’s experiments are conducted at the LLE.  The proposed funding cuts would have shuttered the lab, considered a vital contributor to national security, in three years.

State lawmakers and others, including members of the scientific community helped reverse the proposal. In fact, the LLE will receive its highest level of federal funding in the UR’s history at $80 million, a $5 million increase over fiscal 2018.

Now, with its role in LaserNet US, perhaps the Laser Lab at UR can continue to make its mark as a growth engine for the optics, imaging and photonics sectors.

 

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