US has lost dominance in highly intense, ultrafast laser technology

A new report by National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine claims that the United States have lost their dominance in highly intense, ultrafast laser technology to Europe and Asia.

The report points out that up to 90 per cent of current high-intensity laser systems are overseas, and not only that but all of the highest power research lasers currently in construction or already built are overseas as well.

The authors of the report have focused on highly intense pulsed petawatt-class lasers (1 petawatt is equal to 1 million billion watts) that deliver nearly 100 times the total world’s energy consumption rate concentrated into a pulse that lasts less than one picosecond, or one-trillionth of a second. Such laser sources are generally used in particle accelerators and colliders to create conditions found in stars, or even create matter out of the empty vacuum. Such laser sources originated in the US, but funding in Europe and Asia has enabled such lasers to be employed in research and development in these continents and to a greater levels than the U.S.

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 main application of high-intensity lasers to the science of DOE’s Stockpile Stewardship Program is to produce bright, penetrating, high-energy X-rays for radiography of high-energy matter. These lasers can deposit a large amount of energy on a picosecond timescale, and this makes them a unique tool to probe inertially-confined nuclear fusion experiments and high-energy-density physics occurring on a much longer time scale.

In manufacturing, high-intensity lasers can be used for precision cutting, mainly due to minimal heat transfer to the materials, resulting in negligible collateral damage. This can also allow for the ability to drill clean, small, deep holes in materials without damaging the surrounding material. For instance, the technology is now commonly used in the medical industry for fabricating high-quality surgical stents that need micron size features, such as 1 micron diameter holes with large lengths. Ultrahigh intensity lasers also show promise for both medical imaging and as the source of intense particle beams for cancer therapies.

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. Scientists and engineers trained in intense, ultrafast lasers contribute to the workforce for applications in photonics and optics, including high-energy lasers for defense and stockpile stewardship. Therefore, the committee recommended that DOE create a broad national network — that includes universities, industry, and government laboratories, in coordination with the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the research arms of the Department of Defense, National Science Foundation, and other federal research organizations — as the cornerstone of a national strategy to support science, applications, and technology of intense and ultrafast lasers.

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 — including the U.S. Department of Defense, DOE, National Science Foundation, and others — 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.

Carol Harris

Carol Harris

Carol has over 10 years of experience in online news industry. She started out as a content writer for a number of news organizations around the world, eventually landing the job of editor at Technology 24.

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