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Nebraska Goes Big

High-power laser continues to propel UNL research

Diocles laser lab

By Jean Ortiz Jones, University Communications

In a 5,000-square-foot underground laboratory not far from Memorial Stadium, UNL researchers continue to make strides to solving some of the world's most intriguing problems.

Under the direction of physicist Donald Umstadter, researchers in UNL's Extreme Light Laboratory are focusing light to the highest intensities ever achieved. They are developing the proton beams that could someday destroy cancerous cells. They are giving homeland security and defense officials the ability to detect nuclear materials hidden within cargo containers. And they are developing radiation sources that can be used to diagnose cracks in turbine blades before they lead to catastrophic jet engine failure.

With its applications ranging from science and medicine to defense and security, the lab's centerpiece, the ultra-powerful Diocles laser, has helped propel UNL's laser research to new heights. It also has made Umstadter and his team pioneers of high-field physics and laser research.

The uniqueness of the laser facility has led to important collaborative research opportunities with researchers throughout the country. UNL works with researchers from the University of Michigan's Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences Center on Monte Carlo simulations – with parameter inputs from UNL, Michigan runs the computational algorithms to predict experimental results and the Extreme Light Laboratory conducts the physical experiment. Then they collaborate to analyze how closely the simulation predicted the actual experimental results. Umstadter came from MU in 2005 to develop the Diocles.

"Academic research is occasionally described as 'academic' not because it's conducted at universities but instead because it's not immediately practical. Such fundamental research is well worth pursuing because one never knows where it will eventually lead. But one reason that our project is so exciting is because not only does it have this unpredictable discovery-driven aspect, it also has several practical and important applications that can benefit society in the near term." - Donald Umstadter

The lab, located in Behlen Laboratory, is in the midst of an expansion. After receiving nearly $2 million in federal stimulus funds from the National Science Foundation last year, UNL is renovating Behlen's basement and sub-basement to convert outdated physics labs and offices into a state-of-the-art, high-power laser collaborative laboratory, known as the High Power Laser Science Collaboratory.

Among other features, the expansion will include space for a chamber for a second high-power laser, which Umstadter and his team will build with funding from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

What is special about the Diocles laser?

It has the highest combination of peak and average power of any in the U.S. In fact, its peak power (1014 watts) is greater than all of the world's power plants combined. The trick is that the burst of light only lasts a tiny fraction of a second (10-14 seconds).

Donald Umstadter

Donald Umstadter