Laser with brightness of 1bn suns ‘bends’ light as it scatters

27 Jun 2017

A scientist at work in the Extreme Light Laboratory at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Image: University Communication/University of Nebraska-Lincoln

A laser with the brightness of 1bn suns is so powerful that its beam changes how light and matter interact, with major implications.

The field of photonics is proving to be a fascinating area of science, not only for the breakthroughs we are making in terms of scientific knowledge, but also its power to change our lives through computer science and advanced manufacturing.

That said, nearly all lasers pale in comparison to the one operated by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the US, where its own set-up is so powerful that it is capable of changing how light interacts with matter itself.

Future Human

Using its Diocles Laser, the Extreme Light Laboratory team led by Donald Umstadter was able to create a beam with a brightness 1bn times greater than the surface of our sun – the brightest light ever produced on Earth.

It wasn’t just for show, however, as the beam was fired at helium-suspended electrons to measure how the laser’s photons react.

Typically, when light strikes a surface, photons scatter one at a time, allowing us to see the world around us. This means that your average photon is only dispersed approximately every four months or so, leaving a vast number of photons remaining inactive for large periods of time.

However, when electrons were fired upon by the Diocles Laser, its sheer power achieved a substantial breakthrough, with almost 1,000 photons scattered in a single instance.

X-ray of a USB drive

High-resolution x-ray of a USB drive showing detail not visible to with ordinary x-ray technology. Image: Extreme Light Laboratory/University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Light and matter fundamentally change

Even more incredible is that, at such extremes, the team found that both the photons and electron behaved differently, fundamentally changing how photons react with nature.

“It’s as if things appear differently as you turn up the brightness of the light, which is not something you normally would experience,” Umstadter explained.

“[An object] normally becomes brighter but otherwise, it looks just like it did with a lower light level. But here, the light is changing [the object’s] appearance. The light’s coming off at different angles, with different colours, depending on how bright it is.”

Aside from the technical accomplishment, the breakthrough could allow for the generation of extremely high-resolution imagery, useful for medical, engineering, scientific and security purposes.

Some examples include using it to hunt for tumours or microfractures that elude conventional x-rays, or even detecting increasingly sophisticated threats at security checkpoints.

The team’s research has now been published in Nature Photonics.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic