In an Ohio State physics lab, five years of work have ended with a bang.
When the SCARLET laser fired up for the first time, a cigar-sized lightning bolt cracked through the air--and set the stage for decades of research in areas as diverse as cancer therapy and fusion energy.
SCARLET is one of the country’s most powerful lasers outside a national lab. Its output exceeds 400 trillion watts--over 300 times the output of the U.S. power grid--concentrated into a tiny fraction of a second.
In that moment, the laser creates conditions that otherwise exist only inside stars.
Researchers will use the intense pulses to study proton beams for cancer therapy, extreme states of matter for learning about the interiors of gas planets, and even antimatter. It also could have big implications for national security.
"We might be able to create a device that can help catch dangerous materials that are being smuggled across our national borders," says physics professor Douglass Schumacher. "We are going to use this laser to generate pure beams of neutrons, which has never been done with a laser before."
Ultimately, this work may aid the development of fusion energy.
For five years, more than a dozen graduate students and two dozen undergraduates made the High Energy Density Physics Lab their second home, working nights and weekends to make SCARLET a reality.
They built a series of steel chambers filled with lenses and electronics that snake through three rooms of the laboratory. They wrote the computer code that controls the laser itself. They painstakingly cleaned the entire lab by hand--every nut, bolt, and tool--to remove any trace of dust that could get caught in the laser beam.
The result is a facility cleaner than an operating room--and a tight-knit community of students who have years of laboratory experience before they even graduate.
Says Schumacher: "They've been working at the absolute state of the art of science and technology, and received an education that can't be found in any classroom."
Now the research can begin.
One project will test materials for cancer therapy that focus radiation on tumors and away from healthy tissue. Another will study how neutrons can detect nuclear materials, explosives, and chemical weapons at cargo stations and border crossings.
Perhaps the most exciting long-term experiments in the lab will involve fusion energy. Fusion is how stars make energy, and scientists worldwide are working to create controlled fusion here on Earth as a pollution-free and limitless power source for the future. To make that happen, they first need to understand how earthly materials behave under those intense conditions--and SCARLET is a tool to find the answers.
(Ohio State received $6.25 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to build the laser, and another $1 million to support the students who worked on the construction for the past six years. In addition, the Department of Energy provides $200,000 a year to support the faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, and other employees who work with the laser.)