In 2018, the U.S. Department of Energy established LaserNetUS, a network of facilities operating ultrapowerful lasers. Organized and funded through DOE’s Office of Fusion Energy Sciences (FES), the new network was created to provide vastly improved access to unique lasers for researchers, and to help restore the U.S.’s once-dominant position in high-intensity laser research. Now, new DOE funding totaling $18 million, including $1 million for user support, will be distributed among 10 partner institutions and will continue and expand LaserNetUS operations for three years.
“The LaserNetUS initiative is a shining example of a scientific community coming together to advance the frontiers of research, provide students and scientists with broad access to unique facilities and enabling technologies and foster collaboration among researchers and networks from around the world,” said James Van Dam, DOE associate director of science for Fusion Energy Sciences. “We are very excited to work with all of these outstanding institutions as partners in this initiative.”
The initiative includes a node at Berkeley Lab, home of the BELLA Center in the Accelerator Technology and Applied Physics Division, with the BELLA petawatt and 100-terawatt-class lasers. According to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) principal investigator Thomas Schenkel, “Opening our door to users from LaserNetUS has been a great experience, and we are looking forward to working with a growing user community in this next phase.”
LaserNetUS includes the most powerful lasers in the U.S. and Canada, some of which have powers approaching or exceeding a petawatt. Petawatt lasers generate light with at least 1 million billion watts of power, or nearly 100 times the combined output of all the world’s power plants but compressed to the briefest of bursts. These lasers fire off ultrafast pulses of light shorter than one-tenth of a trillionth of a second.
All facilities in LaserNetUS operate high-intensity lasers, which have a broad range of applications in basic research, advanced manufacturing and medicine. They can recreate some of the most extreme conditions in the universe, such as those found in supernova explosions and near black holes. They can generate particle beams for high-energy physics research or intense X-ray pulses to probe matter as it evolves on ultrafast time scales. They are being used to develop new technology, such as techniques to generate intense neutron bursts to evaluate aging aircraft components or implement advanced laser-based welding.
Several LaserNetUS facilities also operate high-energy, longer-pulse lasers that can produce exotic and extreme states of matter, like those in planetary interiors or many-times-compressed materials. They can also be used to study laser-plasma interactions that are important to fusion-energy programs.
In its first year of user operations, LaserNetUS awarded time for 49 user experiments to researchers from 25 different institutions. Over 200 scientists, including more than 100 students and postdoctoral researchers, have participated in experiments so far.
The institutions hosting LaserNetUS facilities are: Colorado State University, Berkeley Lab, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, SLAC National Laboratory, Ohio State University, University of Michigan, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, University of Rochester and University of Texas at Austin in the U.S., and Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique in Canada. All proposals are peer-reviewed by an independent external panel of national and international experts.
The U.S. has been a pioneer in high-intensity laser technology and was home to the research that was recognized by the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics. The network and future upgrades to LaserNetUS facilities will provide new opportunities for U.S. and international scientists in discovery science and in the development of new technologies.