University of Michigan is home to the country’s most powerful laser

Zeus will begin operations early next year

ZEUS laser at the University of Michigan. (University of Michigan)

ANN ARBOR – The National Science Foundation recently awarded University of Michigan’s 3 petawatt ZEUS laser $18.5 million to make it an international user facility.

The federally funded ZEUS will begin experiments in early 2022.

“We are really looking forward to the exciting experiments that this new facility will make possible,” director of the Center for Ultrafast Optical Science, where construction on ZEUS is now complete, Karl Krushelnick said in a release.

In 1996, the United States built the first petawatt laser in the world, but has since fallen behind on the global stage as other countries pursue more ambitious systems.

Europe has two 10-petawatt lasers while China, which has a 5.3-petawatt laser, has plans to construct a 100-petawatt system.

“While the new laser doesn’t pack as much raw power, its approach will simulate a laser that is roughly a million times more powerful than its 3 petawatts,” reads a U-M release.

Researchers will use ZEUS to study extreme plasmas -- charged gases that are formed when electrons break free of their atoms.

“Extreme plasma made with ‘table-top’ laser technology offers a lower-cost alternative for fundamental research in physics compared to large scale particle accelerators, which cost billions to build,” project manager of the construction of ZEUS Franko Bayer said in a release. “We are very excited since this support enables the U.S plasma science community, and us at U-M, to make long-term research plans.”

Experiments using ZEUS are expected to contribute to fundamental understandings of physics and the universe, including how black holes can produce jets, how materials transform on rapid timescales and how to better develop highly efficient particle accelerators used for medical treatment and imaging.

One of its first experiments will transform gas atoms into plasma by sending ultrashort laser pulses each second into targets made of gas using half a petawatt of power. Over two years, the system will slowly increase to full power and will begin user operations and signature experiments in October 2023.

“That setup will eventually send the full power laser beam into a vacuum chamber where the laser beam will be focused on a gas target with a colliding electron beam traveling in the opposite direction, simulating a much higher power zetawatt laser,” reads a U-M release. “While a petawatt is a quadrillion watts, or a 1 followed by 15 zeros, a zetawatt is 1 quintillion watts, or a 1 followed by 21 zeros.”

Hence, ZEUS stands for “Zetawatt Equivalent Ultrashort pulse laser System.”

The long-term plan for ZEUS is for it to operate as an open user facility as the most powerful laser in the U.S. for at least a decade.

As the facility reaches full capacity, NSP will ramp up its funding, providing $5.5 million in fall 2025, which happens to be the final year of the award.

International experimental teams will travel to U-M to conduct experiments with ZEUS. Due to its federal funding status, researchers whose proposals are accepted by an external panel of engineers and scientists will be able to conduct research at the facility no cost.

“We look forward to the greatly increased capability and access to the highest intensity lasers that the NSF ZEUS user facility will provide for the U.S. and international scientific community,” said NSF program director for plasma physics Vyacheslav (Slava) Lukin.

“From the fundamental physics of light and matter, to powerful astrophysical phenomena like blazars, to compact particle accelerators, the users of the facility will be able to explore a wide range of phenomena while pushing the frontiers of technology.”

About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.