Government Report Details Need for US Ultrafast Laser Development

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WASHINGTON, D.C., Jan. 11, 2018 — The U.S. is losing ground in a second laser revolution of highly intense, ultrafast lasers that have broad applications in manufacturing, medicine and national security, according to a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Currently, 80 to 90 percent of high-intensity laser systems are overseas, and all of the highest-power research lasers currently in construction or already built are overseas as well. The report makes five recommendations that would improve the nation's position in the field.

The report focuses on highly intense pulsed petawatt-class lasers that deliver nearly 100× the total world's energy consumption rate concentrated into a pulse that lasts less than one picosecond. Such laser sources create conditions that can accelerate and collide intense beams of elementary particles, drive nuclear reactions, heat matter to conditions found in stars or even create matter out of the empty vacuum. These powerful lasers originated in the U.S. However, research-funding agencies in Europe and Asia began in the last decade to invest heavily in new collaborations and facilities that will employ these high-intensity lasers for broad areas of science.

The committee that carried out the study and wrote the report concluded that intense, ultrafast lasers have broad applicability beyond science to nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship, industry and medicine. The committee also concluded that high-intensity lasers enable a significant and important body of science, which has a large and talented technical community already, but it is fragmented across different disciplines. Coordination between industry and government is limited and often inadequate, the committee said. No single federal agency currently acts as the steward for high-intensity laser-based research, nor does cross-agency stewardship exist in the U.S. 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. To increase integration and coordination in this field, the committee recommended that research agencies 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, such as peak power, repetition rate, pulse duration, wavelength and focusable intensity.

The committee also called for the DOE to lead the development of a comprehensive, interagency national strategy for high-intensity lasers that includes a program for both developing and operating large-scale laboratory projects; midscale projects such as those hosted at universities; and a technology development program with technology transfer among universities, U.S. industry and national laboratories.

Co-location of high-intensity lasers with existing infrastructure, such as particle accelerators, has been recognized as a key advantage of the U.S. laboratories over the Extreme Light Infrastructure concept in Europe. Based on this, the committee recommended that the DOE plan for at least one large-scale, open-access, high-intensity laser facility that leverages other major science infrastructure in the DOE complex. Furthermore, cooperation among universities, laboratories and industry is necessary to retain and renew the talent base, and cooperation among these sectors in the past has proved essential.

The current situation could be improved to develop a robust national talent pool and a strong technology base for this fast-growing area, according to the report. The committee's final recommendation called for agencies to create programs for U.S. scientists and engineers that include midscale infrastructure, project operations in high-intensity laser science in the U.S., development of key underpinning technologies, and engagement in research at international facilities such as Europe's Extreme Light Infrastructure.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the Office of Naval Research and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

Published: January 2018
BusinessLasersU.S. Department of EnergyNational Academies of SciencesEngineering and MedicineAmericas

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