Laser as bright as a billion Suns could shine a light for engineers

A scientist at work in the Extreme Light Laboratory at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (Credit: University Communication/ University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
A scientist at work in the Extreme Light Laboratory at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (Credit: University Communication/ University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Shining with the brightness of a billion Suns, a ground-breaking laser could help engineers shed light on new materials and protect aircraft from devastating failures.

Physicists from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have created the Diocles Laser, which produces the brightest light ever created on Earth. In a recent experiment, the scientists focused the laser to one billion times brighter than the surface of our closest star, for 30 billionths of one millionth of a second. The resulting light created unique X-ray pulses which could generate extremely high-resolution images, which the team said could be useful in engineering, medicine, science and security.

Lead scientist Donald Umstadter said the X-rays’ extreme energy and incredibly short duration could help generate 3D images on a nanoscopic scale. This means the “unimaginably bright” Diocles could help map the molecular landscapes of nanoscopic materials being used in semiconductor technology.

The rays created could also be used to find tiny hairline cracks in jet turbines, which are not picked up in conventional X-rays. The U.S. Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) is funding the university’s research into the field to protect against “catastrophic jet engine failure” caused over time by miniature faults.

The Diocles also acts as a particle accelerator, which can be practically used for radiotherapy, industrial processing and other biomedical research. The laser, housed at the university’s Extreme Light Laboratory, is far smaller and more compact than traditional accelerators at just 15ft by 15ft.

“The headline fact is that the acceleration gradient – the distance which you need to accelerate a particle to a given energy – is about 1,000 times shorter than in a conventional accelerator like those at Cern,” said physicist Simon Hooker from the University of Oxford to Professional Engineering. “Hence, in principle, we can take a big machine and make it a thousand times shorter… potentially shrinking accelerators from the length of a football pitch to something much shorter.”

The laser’s high power and relative portability means it could also be used for security purposes, the University of Nebraska team said. The Diocles could potentially create X-rays powerful enough to “see through” four-inch thick steel, detecting bombs or other threats in cargo.

The research was published in Nature Photonics.

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