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Superfast laser delivers record-breaking peak power of one petawatt


August 8, 2012

The BELLA laser during construction at Berkeley Lab. It recently delivered a record-breaking petawatt in a pulse just 40 femtoseconds long at a rate of one pulse per second

The BELLA laser during construction at Berkeley Lab. It recently delivered a record-breaking petawatt in a pulse just 40 femtoseconds long at a rate of one pulse per second

Not even a month since researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's National Ignition Facility (NIF) announced a 500 trillion watt laser shot, researchers at the Berkeley Lab Laser Accelerator (BELLA) have managed to deliver a record-breaking petawatt, that is, a quadrillion watts, in a pulse just 40 femtoseconds long at a rate of one pulse every second. To put that in perspective, a petawatt is more than the combined output of all electric power plants in the world at any given time and one femtosecond is a quadrillionth of a second.

The BELLA design draws on years-long laser plasma accelerator research conducted by the Lasers and Optical Accelerator Systems Integrated Studies (LOASIS) program at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Whereas conventional accelerators use modulated electric fields to accelerate charged particles such as protons and electrons, the laser plasma accelerator generates waves of electron density that move through a plasma. The laser beams either heat and drill through a plume of gas or they drive through plasma enclosed in a thin capillary in a sapphire. The extreme speed is achieved when the waves traps some of the plasma’s free electrons and accelerate them to very high energy levels within very short lengths.

The project’s initial experiments, scheduled to begin in the (northern hemisphere) autumn, will try to deliver the powerful pulses needed to create 10-billion-electron-volt (10 GeV) beams in a compact accelerator just one meter long (3.28 ft), although the laser system fills an adjacent room. For the sake of comparison, previous technology required a linear accelerator two miles long (3.2 km), as was the case with the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, which achieved 50 GeV electron beams with traditional technology.

Compact accelerators can open up new possibilities for doctors, universities and industry to use them as tools for advanced treatments and research techniques, besides paving the way to the next generation of particle colliders for high energy physics.

Ed's note: This article was amended on August 8. It previously stated that the laser achieved a power of 1 petawatt per second, which is incorrect.

Source: Berkeley Lab

About the Author
Antonio Pasolini Brazilian-Italian Antonio Pasolini graduated in journalism in Brazil before heading out to London for an MA in film and television studies. He fell in love with the city and spent 13 years there as a film reviewer before settling back in Brazil. Antonio's passion for green issues - and the outdoors - eventually got the best of him and since 2007 he's been writing about alternative energy, sustainability and new technology. All articles by Antonio Pasolini

Measuring power over this timeframe is meaningless. Did you mean petaJOULES?


Measuring power over that time frame is not meaningless, but it sure is difficult to keep track of all the old-fashioned names (like "quadrillion") for the prefixes. Peta- means 10^^15 and femto- signifies 10^^-15, so one petawatt for 40 femtoseconds is 40 joules. Add the fact that this is done once a second, and 40 joules/second is 40 watts.


Also, the comparison with the 500 TW shot at LLNL's National Ignition Facility is rather specious, because that one produced a total of 1.85 MEGAjoules, versus 40 joules fro BELLA.

BELLA is focusing on delivering a stream of extremely short and powerful pulses. NIF is focusing on delivering a huge amount of energy on a tiny target before it blows up. Apples and oranges.

By the way, the main achievement for BELLA is to be able to fire these pulses once per second, not the fact that they achieved one petawatt of peak power. Petawatt lasers have been developed by a number of groups before - see e.g. this story on a 1.25 petawatt, 400 joule laser shot from 1996: http://www.llnl.gov/str/Petawatt.html.


How long before it's ready to be installed in the Deathstar? Can we blow up a planet with this yet?


I just wish I was 20-30 years younger, so I could see the end results of all these advances-most likely won't live to see the fruition of all this technology-63 now!

Dave Ussery
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