A newly built University of Michigan facility that will have the most powerful laser in the United States will stage a first experiment this week, as the nation tries to once again become competitive in the field of laser centers. High power.
A group of researchers from the University of California, Irvine (UCI) campus will carry out the experiment at the ZEUS facility, short for Zetawatt Equivalent Ultrashort Pulsed Laser System. They traveled to Ann Arbor as part of their study of the extremely strong interactions between light and matter, and to see how these interactions can be harnessed to shrink particle accelerators to dimensions.
When it reaches its full power, ZEUS will be a 3 petawatt laser.
Three petawatts is “3 followed by 15 zeros,” said Louise Willingale, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Michigan.
And “3 petawatts is 3,000 times more powerful than the US power grid,” he added.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded $18.5 million to the University of Michigan for the creation of ZEUS as a federally funded center for international users.
Set up in a building that houses the University of Michigan’s Gérard Mouroug Center for Ultrafast Optical Sciences, the facility will initially host research teams conducting experiments that require a fraction of the full laser power. The power of the system will be increased gradually, and the ZEUS facility is expected to begin conducting its signature experiments in the fall of 2023.
The United States built the world’s first petawatt laser a quarter century ago, but it hasn’t kept up with more ambitious systems in Europe and Asia. Although ZEUS doesn’t have the same raw power as its foreign contemporaries, its approach will simulate a laser nearly a million times more powerful than its 3 petawatts.
ZEUS will mainly study extreme plasmas, a state of matter in which electrons have enough energy to escape from atoms, creating a sea of charged particles. Almost the entire visible universe is made of plasma. The Sun is an example of a plasma.
The experiments are expected to contribute to understanding how the universe works at the subatomic level and the change of materials on rapid time scales. The scientists are also confident that the experiments will lead to the development of smaller and more compact particle accelerators for imaging and treatment in medicine.
ZEUS “will have an enormous range of applications across science, technology, engineering and medicine,” Willingale said.
Applications to use ZEUS will be evaluated by an external panel of scientists and engineers. Thanks to NSF funding, there will be no cost to users whose experimental proposals are selected for research, other than paying for their trip to the facility.
Proposals will be selected on the basis of their scientific merit and technical feasibility, Willingale said.
Franklin Dollar, an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Irvine, and four UCI graduate students arrived in Michigan last week to begin preparing for their experiment.
“One of the main challenges in our field is access to quality, intense laser light,” Dollar said. “ZEUS will not only be the most powerful laser beam on the continent, but perhaps more importantly, it will provide multiple powerful beams.”
“More than just creating highly energetic plasmas from a laser, there is a second laser beam that can also interact with the plasma,” he said.
ZEUS is an upgrade of the University of Michigan’s 0.5 petawatt laser, known as HERCULES.
While the researchers are excited about the birth of ZEUS, they acknowledge that the selection of names does not exactly follow the chronology of Greek mythology.
“HERCULES was the predecessor of ZEUS,” said Willingale. “He is slightly backwards, because Hercules was the son of Zeus. Thus, we are creating the father after the son.