Jefferson Lab beats record for laser

The beam of infrared light, the most powerful of its kind in the world, may help the Navy.

NEWPORT NEWS — Jefferson Lab recently beat its own record for having the most powerful tunable laser in the world by producing 10 kilowatts of infrared light. The lab's free electron laser is now 400 times more powerful than the next-strongest lasers in Japan and Russia.

The $20 million upgrade of Jefferson Lab's free electron laser, funded by the Office of Naval Research, should help develop a wide variety of technologies, from ship-defense systems to lightweight filaments that could revolutionize computer electronics.

The free electron laser's 10 kilowatts of infrared light, produced for the first time in June, is 10 million times more powerful than the grocery scanners you see at the checkout counter, said Fred Dylla, free electron laser program manager.

"What you're seeing is the culmination of a year-long commissioning," Dylla said. "This is a machine that doesn't just have an on-off switch like your computer."

The free electron laser produces intense beams of light using accelerated electrons sent through an intense magnetic field to generate a light beam.

Inside the laser, electrons are stripped from their atoms and then whipped up to high energies by an accelerator. From there, they are steered into a wiggler, which uses magnets to shake the electrons and release some of their energy in the form of photons — or light.

Scientists can tune the laser to a precise color or wavelength by increasing or decreasing the strength of the magnet in the wiggler or by changing the energy of the electrons in the accelerator.

Jefferson Lab's free electron laser originally broke power records by producing 1 kilowatt of infrared light in 1999 and 2.1 kilowatts in 2001. Later that same year, the laser went off-line for the upgrade. Jefferson Lab workers installed new mirrors, power supplies and accelerator components.

The Office of Naval Research has several free electron laser experiments scheduled to begin in early fall, said Quentin Saulter, directed energy program officer.

"The Navy has chosen the FEL because it has multi-mission capabilities," he said. "Its unique, high-power and 24-hour capabilities are ideal for Department of Defense, industrial and scientific applications."

Saulter would not go into detail about the military applications, other than saying the Navy will study how infrared light moves through the atmosphere, focusing on "new laser-based shipboard defense strategies."

Jefferson Lab's Web site illustrates the technology as a ship-based laser gun that shoots at incoming missiles.

Researchers with NASA and the College of William and Mary will also use the upgraded laser this fall to make nanotubes, microscopic bits of carbon that are 20 times stronger than steel and one-sixth the weight. Stronger than most substances known to man, nanotubes could become the building blocks of future spacecraft, computers and skyscrapers.

Dylla said the best inventions that the free electron laser will enable are the ones that can't yet be imagined.

"Whenever you apply a new scientific tool with new capabilities, in this case 10 times more power than before, you can't predict everything that will happen," he said. "That's the wonder of science."