A newly built University of Michigan facility that will house the most powerful laser in the United States will host its first experiment this week as the nation seeks to become competitive again in the realm of high-powered laser structures.
The experiment will be conducted at ZEUS, short for Zettawatt-Equivalent Ultrashort Pulse Laser System, by researchers from the University of California, Irvine. They traveled to Ann Arbor as part of their study of the extremely intense interactions of light and matter and how those interactions can be exploited to reduce particle accelerators.
At the peak of its power, the ZEUS will be a 3 petawatt laser.
Three petawatts is “3 with 15 zeros after it,” said Louise Willingale, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Michigan.
And “3 petawatts are 3,000 times more powerful than the US power grid,” he said.
Michigan received $ 18.5 million from the National Science Foundation to establish ZEUS as a federally funded international user facility.
Initially, the facility, housed in a building housing UM’s Gérard Mourou Center for Ultrafast Optical Science, will house research teams that will conduct experiments using a fraction of the laser’s full potential. The system will gradually scale up and ZEUS is expected to begin its signature experiments in the fall of 2023.
The United States built the world’s first petawatt laser a quarter of a century ago, but it hasn’t kept up with the more ambitious systems in Europe and Asia. While ZEUS doesn’t offer the same raw power as its contemporaries abroad, its approach will simulate a laser that is about 1 million times more powerful than its 3 petawatts.
ZEUS will primarily study extreme plasmas, a state of matter where electrons have enough energy to escape atoms, creating a sea of charged particles. Almost all of the universe seen is made of plasma. The sun is an example of plasma.
The experiments are expected to contribute to the understanding of how the universe operates at the subatomic level and materials change over rapid time scales. Scientists also hope they will lead to the development of smaller, more compact particle accelerators for imaging and medical treatment.
ZEUS “will have a broad range of applications across science, technology, engineering and medicine,” said Willingale.
Proposals for the use of ZEUS will be evaluated by an external panel composed of scientists and engineers. Thanks to NSF funding, there will be no cost to users whose experiment proposals are selected to conduct the research, as well as providing their own travel expenses to the facility.
Proposals will be selected on the basis of scientific merit and technical feasibility, Willingale said.
Franklin Dollar, an associate professor in the Cal-Irvine Department of Physics and Astronomy, and four UCI graduate students arrived in Michigan last week to begin preparing for their experiment.
“A major challenge in our field is accessing intense, high-quality laser light,” said Dollar. “ZEUS will not only be the most powerful laser beam on the continent, but perhaps more importantly it will deliver more powerful beams.
“Instead of only producing high-energy plasmas from a laser, there is also a second beam that can interact with the plasma,” he said.
ZEUS is an upgrade over the University of Michigan’s 0.5 petawatt laser known as HERCULES.
While Michigan researchers are thrilled with the birth of ZEUS, they are aware that their naming conventions aren’t exactly in line with the chronology of Greek mythology.
“HERCULES was the predecessor of ZEUS,” Willingale said. “He is slightly backward, because Hercules was the son of Zeus.
“So, we’re building father after son.”