UNL dedicates new world-class laser laboratory

Released on 08/25/2006, at 2:00 PM
Office of University Communications
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Lincoln, Neb., August 25th, 2006 —
Umstadter demonstrates video display
Umstadter demonstrates video display
Umstadter adjusts parabolic mirror
Umstadter adjusts parabolic mirror
Technician adjusts Diocles laser
Technician adjusts Diocles laser
Titanium sapphire crystal
Titanium sapphire crystal
Researchers operating Diocles
Researchers operating Diocles

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln unveiled a new world-class laser today that officials said is helping position Nebraska as a leader in high-field physics and laser research.

The Diocles laser has the potential for reaching the highest light intensity ever produced by any laser in the world. For example, the compact, ultra-fast, high-intensity laser can produce more power than 100,000 Hoover Dams in bursts lasting only 30 billionths of one millionth of a second, said UNL physicist Donald Umstadter, principal scientist for the laser and director of the Extreme Light Laboratory.

The laser, which was installed this summer, is in a Behlen Laboratory sub-basement south of Memorial Stadium. Federal, state and university officials dedicated the lab and toured the facility Friday afternoon.

"This powerful laser and Dr. Umstadter's expertise should put UNL at the forefront of international high-field physics and laser research," said Prem Paul, UNL vice chancellor for research.

Diocles is the latest in a new generation of compact lasers that produce very brief pulses of extremely intense light. In a space the size of a living room, Diocles offers the opportunity to generate the same level of intense light (in the form of X-rays) that conventionally is produced by huge synchrotron accelerators more than a mile in circumference.

"I believe we have one of the world's state-of-the-art laser laboratories," Umstadter said. He named the laser for the Greek philosopher Diocles, who around 200 B.C. invented the parabolic mirror to focus light -- the same type of mirror used in UNL's 21st-century laser. He said he hopes to discover what happens to matter when it interacts with light at its most intense. The new laser is the best way to produce such extreme light.

"When you focus the laser to its highest intensity, you are creating conditions that have never been produced on earth," Umstadter said. "In fact, we can produce pressures that are greater than those at the core of the sun." Such extreme conditions are likely to lead to new scientific discoveries, he said, and eventually to new technologies that benefit society.

Its small size and high power also mean Diocles can enable new technologies and applications never before possible, Umstadter said. For example, Diocles produces gamma rays, or X-rays, that can "see through" four-inch-thick steel to detect bomb material hidden in a cargo container, or hairline cracks in a jet turbine. The laser is small and inexpensive enough for hospitals to potentially use it as a proton source for cutting-edge cancer therapy.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who has been instrumental in securing federal funding for UNL research projects, spoke at the dedication.

"It's an honor for me to work together with the university on projects that propel science and discovery in Nebraska," Nelson said. "Just as the Internet and GPS began as military applications, who knows what other uses will be discovered as a result of the work that begins here at UNL. This laser is a multi-million-dollar investment with a multi-billion-dollar benefit."

Before coming to UNL in January 2005, Umstadter was a professor and one of the founders of the Center for Ultra-Fast Optical Science at the University of Michigan. There he worked with Gerard A. Mourou, who invented the technique that led to the development of compact lasers, the forerunners of Diocles.

Umstadter said he and a team of scientists, students and post-doctorate researchers were attracted to UNL by the excellent physics department and the opportunity to build the Diocles laser. Umstadter's recruitment is an example of UNL's strategic plan to build research capacity by hiring scientists and scholars at the top of their field, said Chancellor Harvey Perlman.

"One of our most valuable tools in recruiting top-notch faculty is endowments for named chairs," Perlman said. "Dr. Umstadter holds the Leland J. and Dorothy H. Olson Chair, a generous gift from the Olsons that was matched by Othmer Funds. Without these resources it would be much more difficult to recruit high-caliber faculty."

Othmer funds come from a $125 million gift to the University of Nebraska Foundation in 1998 by the estate of Donald and Mildred Topp Othmer. It was the largest gift ever to the university.

The new lab also is acting as a magnet to attract top students -- a future generation of scientists -- who are excited about the possibility of doing research with the laser. Nathan Powers, a recent Brigham Young University graduate, spent the summer setting up experiments in the lab before starting graduate work in physics this week. Ashley Ernesti from Lincoln worked on numerical modeling experiments in the lab this summer before starting her freshman year this week.

UNL's investment in the laser, made possible in part by Nebraska Research Initiative funds allocated by the Legislature to the University of Nebraska system to finance the laser itself, and internal UNL funds for the facility, are paying off, Paul said.

Umstadter already is receiving almost $1 million in funding annually from federal agencies. The National Science Foundation funds his team's basic research and the Department of Energy funds his use of the laser for generating unique X-rays. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funds his work through a program to develop compact laser-driven electron accelerators.

This is UNL's plan for research success in action, Paul said.

"Recruiting top faculty and giving them the resources to pursue their work enables us to quickly build strong programs in research areas that are a priority for UNL and for the federal funding agencies," he said.

The links below are to high-resolution, print-quality JPEG images of the Diocles laser, physicist Donald Umstadter with the laser and the laser control room. The images in descending order:

1. Umstadter demonstrates a video display that shows the room where experiments are performed. The display is part of a permanent educational self-guided tour of the Diocles laser in UNL's new Extreme Light Laboratory. The display teaches visitors and prospective students about laser research. Umstadter holds a wireless remote control for the display. (UNL University Communications photo)

2. Umstadter adjusts a parabolic mirror used to focus the Diocles laser. Greek philosopher Diocles invented the parabolic mirror in 200 B.C. The same type of mirror is used in UNL's laser. The photo was shot through a glass viewing port on a vacuum chamber, where experiments are performed. (UNL University Communications photo)

3. A technician adjusts the new Diocles laser in the Extreme Light Laboratory at UNL. The powerful, ultra-fast, compact laser is helping put the university on the forefront of high-field physics and laser research. It has the potential to reach the highest light intensity every produced by any laser. (UNL University Communications photo)

4. A titanium sapphire crystal gives off a reddish glow. It's part of the Diocles laser at UNL's Extreme Light Laboratory. The titanium sapphire crystal amplifies, or "lases," light. It is housed in a water-cooled mount. Water flowing through tubes removes heat that is generated by pumping energy into the crystal. (UNL University Communications photo)

5. UNL researchers operate the new Diocles laser from a state-of-the-art control room. The control room is used to remotely control and acquire data from experiments, which are conducted behind a radiation-shielded wall. (UNL University Communications photo)

CONTACTS: Don Umstadter, Professor, Physics, (402) 472-8115;
Prem S. Paul, Vice Chancellor, Research, (402) 472-3123