ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — A newly built University of Michigan facility that will be home to the most powerful laser in the United States is hosting its first experiment this week as the nation tries to become competitive again in the high-power arena. power laser facilities.
Researchers from the University of California, Irvine, will perform the experiment at ZEUS – short for Zettawatt-Equivalent Ultrashort Pulse laser system -. They traveled to Ann Arbor as part of their study of the intense interactions of light and matter, and how such interactions can be harnessed to shrink particle accelerators.
At the height of its power, ZEUS will be a 3-petawatt laser.
Three petawatts is “3 followed by 15 zeros,” said Louise Willingale, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Michigan.
And “3 petawatts is 3,000 times more powerful than the US power grid,” she said.
The National Science Foundation awarded Michigan $18.5 million to establish ZEUS as a federally funded international user facility.
Initially, the facility – located in a building that houses UM’s Gérard Mourou Center for Ultrafast Optical Science – will host research teams that will conduct experiments that use a fraction of the laser’s full power potential. The system will go up gradually, and ZEUS is expected to begin its signature experiments by autumn 2023.
The US built the world’s first petawatt laser a quarter of a century ago, but has not kept up with more ambitious systems in Europe and Asia. Although ZEUS does not have the same raw power as its overseas counterparts, its approach will simulate a laser that is about 1 million times more powerful than its 3 potatoes.
ZEUS will primarily study extreme plasma, a state of matter where the electrons have enough energy to escape atoms, creating a sea of charged particles. Almost all of the visible universe is made of plasma. An example of plasma is the sun.
Experiments are expected to further the understanding of how the universe works at the sub-atomic level and how materials change on rapid time scales. Scientists also hope to develop smaller and more compact particle accelerators for medical imaging and treatment.
ZEUS will have “a huge range of applications across science, technology, engineering and medicine,” Willingale said.
Proposals to use ZEUS will be evaluated by an external panel of scientists and engineers. Because of NSF funding, there will be no cost to users whose experiment proposals are selected to conduct research, other than providing their own travel expenses to the facility.
The proposals will be selected on scientific merit and technical feasibility, Willingale said.
Franklin Dollar, an associate professor in Cal-Irvine’s Department of Physics & Astronomy, and four UCI graduate students arrived in Michigan last week to begin preparing for their experiment.
“One of the biggest challenges in our field is access to high-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 deliver multiple powerful beams.
“In addition to making very energetic plasmas from one laser, there is a second beam that can also interact with the plasma,” he said.
ZEUS is an upgrade over the University of Michigan’s 0.5-petawatt laser, called HERCULES.
Although the Michigan researchers are thrilled with the birth of ZEUS, they know that their naming conventions do not exactly match the chronology of Greek mythology.
“HERCULES was the forerunner of ZEUS,” said Willingale. “It’s a bit backwards, because Hercules was the son of Zeus.
“So we’re raising the father after the son.”