The most powerful laser in the U.S. will have a three-quadrillion-watt maximum output

To begin with, it will only run at a fraction of its eventual three-quadrillion-watt maximum output.
Chris Young
Scientists working on the ZEUS laser.
Scientists working on the ZEUS laser.

Source: Marcin Szczepanski / Michigan Engineering 

A laser at the University of Michigan, which is set to be the most powerful in the United States, is preparing to send its first laser pulses into an experimental target, a press statement explains.

The laser, named the Zetawatt-Equivalent Ultrashort pulse laser System, or Zeus, will be used to investigate quantum physics as well as outer space. It is hoped studies using the laser will also help to build new technologies in electronics and medicine.

During the first run, the ZEUS team will start the laser up at a power of 30 terawatts (30 trillion watts), which is roughly three percent of the output of the most powerful lasers in the U.S., and only one percent of ZEUS's eventual maximum power. When at full power, it will have an impressive maximum power of three petawatts, or three quadrillion watts.

Firing up the most powerful laser in the U.S.

The first target area for the laser is called the high-repetition target area, which is used for more frequent but lower-power laser pulses. This will be used to help explore a new type of X-ray imaging. Michigan alum Franklin Dollar, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California Irvine, is leading that investigation.

Dollar and his team will use ZEUS to send infrared laser pulses into a gas target of helium in order to turn it into plasma. The plasma then accelerates electrons to high energies, producing extremely compact X-ray pulses. These could potentially be used in medicine to greatly reduce the amount of radiation applied to a patient while taking X-ray images of soft tissue and tumors.

"We could see every little organ as well as the tiny micro hairs on its leg," Dollar explained. "It's very exciting to think of how we could use these laser-like X-rays to do low-dose imaging, taking advantage of the fact that they're laser-like rather than having to rely on the absorption imaging of the past."

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After this first run, Dollar's team intends to return late in the fall for another one. When they do, they will use ZEUS's full 500 terawatts of power assigned for the target area.

Simulating extreme space objects

The first test that will take place in the target area for ZEUS's signature experiment is expected to take place in 2023. It will use the laser to generate a beam of high-speed electrons that will then be run directly into the laser pulses. That will simulate a zetawatt laser pulse — a million times more powerful than ZEUS's 3-petawatt output — for the electrons.

The laser will also help scientists simulate the conditions of extreme objects in outer space, including magnetars and objects like galactic nuclei, which are surrounded by extremely hot plasma. "We can recreate the microphysics of hot plasma in extremely strong fields in the laboratory," said Louise Willingale, associate director of ZEUS and an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.

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