University of Nebraska unveils world-class laser

August 28, 2006, Lincoln, NE--The University of Nebraska-Lincoln unveiled a new world-class laser that officials said is helping position Nebraska as a leader in high-field physics and laser research.

The Diocles laser has the potential for reaching the highest light intensity ever produced by any laser in the world. For example, the compact, ultra-fast, high-intensity laser can produce more power than 100,000 Hoover Dams in bursts lasting only 30 billionths of one millionth of a second, said UNL physicist Donald Umstadter, principal scientist for the laser and director of the Extreme Light Laboratory.

"This powerful laser and Dr. Umstadter's expertise should put UNL at the forefront of international high-field physics and laser research," said Prem Paul, UNL vice chancellor for research.

Diocles is the latest in a new generation of compact lasers that produce very brief pulses of extremely intense light. In a space the size of a living room, Diocles offers the opportunity to generate the same level of intense light (in the form of X-rays) that conventionally is produced by huge synchrotron accelerators more than a mile in circumference.

"I believe we have one of the world's state-of-the-art laser laboratories," Umstadter said. He named the laser for the Greek philosopher Diocles, who around 200 B.C. invented the parabolic mirror to focus light -- the same type of mirror used in UNL's 21st-century laser. He said he hopes to discover what happens to matter when it interacts with light at its most intense.

"When you focus the laser to its highest intensity, you are creating conditions that have never been produced on earth," Umstadter said. "In fact, we can produce pressures that are greater than those at the core of the sun." Such extreme conditions are likely to lead to new scientific discoveries, he said, and eventually to new technologies that benefit society.

Its small size and high power also mean Diocles can enable new technologies and applications never before possible, Umstadter said. For example, Diocles produces gamma rays, or X-rays, that can "see through" four-inch-thick steel to detect bomb material hidden in a cargo container, or hairline cracks in a jet turbine. The laser is small and inexpensive enough for hospitals to potentially use it as a proton source for cutting-edge cancer therapy.

Before coming to UNL in January 2005, Umstadter was a professor and one of the founders of the Center for Ultra-Fast Optical Science at the University of Michigan. There he worked with Gerard Mourou, who invented the technique that led to the development of compact lasers, the forerunners of Diocles.

The new lab also is acting as a magnet to attract top students -- a future generation of scientists -- who are excited about the possibility of doing research with the laser. Nathan Powers, a recent Brigham Young University graduate, spent the summer setting up experiments in the lab before starting graduate work in physics this week. Ashley Ernesti from Lincoln worked on numerical modeling experiments in the lab this summer before starting her freshman year this week.

UNL's investment in the laser, made possible in part by Nebraska Research Initiative funds allocated by the Legislature to the University of Nebraska system to finance the laser itself, and internal UNL funds for the facility, are paying off, Paul said.

Umstadter already is receiving almost $1 million in funding annually from federal agencies. The National Science Foundation funds his team's basic research and the Department of Energy funds his use of the laser for generating unique X-rays. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funds his work through a program to develop compact laser-driven electron accelerators.

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