China makes 'huge breakthrough' in high-energy lasers

Chinese researchers have reportedly, developed an innovative cooling system that could make lasers more powerful over longer ranges without overheating.
Christopher McFadden
Image of a Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL).
Image of a Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL).

United States Army/Wikimedia Commons  

Chinese researchers have made what has been called a "huge breakthrough" in high-energy laser technology, reports the South China Morning Post (SCMP). Thanks to a new cooling system, Chinese lasers can now operate "infinitely" by removing built-up waste heat efficiently. This innovation could, the researchers believe, enable high-energy laser weapons to have a longer range and increased punch.

Infinite laser operation

The discovery was made by scientists at the National University of Defence Technology in Hunan province and solves a major technical challenge in laser weapon development. This potentially means that high-energy lasers can now generate uninterrupted and high-performing laser beams using new technology.

“This is a huge breakthrough in improving the performance of high-energy laser systems,” said the team led by laser weapon scientist Yuan Shengfu in a paper published on August 4 in Acta Optica Sinica, a Chinese-language peer-reviewed journal. “High-quality beams can be produced not only in the first second but also maintained indefinitely,” they added.

The new cooling system allegedly works by combining "advanced structures" and optimized gas flow to remove heat while also reducing turbulence and vibration within the laser. It also helps keep the focusing mirrors of the laser weapon clean.

“Since the invention of the first ruby laser in 1960, people have been enthusiastic about transitioning from kinetic energy to laser energy for the rapid projection of energy at the speed of light, dreaming of laser beams to become ‘death rays’ that can instantly kill targets,” Yuan and his colleagues said. “Unfortunately, 60 years have passed, and while various types of lasers have been developed, the application of high-energy laser systems has not been successful," he added.

The United States has made some major breakthroughs in the past with some notable examples of high-energy lasers, including the Navy Advanced Chemical Laser (NACL), Middle Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL), Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL). Still, these have been canceled or mothballed due to being "too big and heavy." However, as the SCMP explained, the real reason might be more to do with their relatively poor destructive power.

“The true reason for the cancellation of these projects was that their destructive power did not meet expectations,” the Chinese scientists said. The weapons also have a limited effective range of just a few kilometers due to heat build-up during operation. To combat this, Yuan's team developed a compact and efficient internal beam path conditioner. The system blows gas through the weapon to remove waste heat and improve gas cleanliness. It also aims to optimize gas flow and minimize size and weight.

China's advanced lasers

The system has several key components, including an air source, a heat exchanger, a gas flow control system, and a gas injection/suction system. The air source provides clean, dry air to the system, which the heat exchanger cools to the desired temperature, theoretically enabling continuous operation.

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