Monday, July 16, 2012 at 6:00 AM
As the laser beam travels through air, it rips apart the surrounding particles producing a small cigar sized bolt of lightening.
After five years of construction, researchers at Ohio State University are finally unveiling their “Scarlet Laser.”
It is an extremely powerful petawatt laser funded by a $6 million grant from the Department of Energy. A petawatt, by the way, it the equivalent of one quadrillion watts.
[audio href="https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/49837188/0715laser.wav" title="OSU Researchers Fire Up Scarlet Laser"]The scarlet laser is a 400 trillion watt laser that will be used for research to harness fusion and cure cancer, among other things.[/audio]
OSU’s Scarlet Laser lab is a maze of vacuum-sealed tubes, plastic white sheets to keep the dust out, and a steel box the size of a small car. It’s clearly much bigger than the average Hollywood laser. Nothing you could attach to the head of a shark, not even in Austin Powers' world.
This laser can fire at a peak intensity of up to 400 trillion watts.
“To give you a sense of what that is, that’s hundreds of times the electrical generating capability of the entire US electrical grid," says Doug Schumacher, the lab’s associate director.
If you want to see a laser like this in action, you have to suit up first. Hair and shoe nets help keep dust particles out while thick goggles sift through the light spectrum to keep you from going blind. Looking at a laser is akin to staring at the sun, after all.
Normally, the laser is fired through a series of vacuum-sealed tubes, but for the purposes of showing it off, the researchers sent it zooming across their lab. As the laser travels through the air, it rips through the air particles creating a cigar sized bolt of light that is accompanied by a loud booming sound.
Doug Schumacher, the lab's associate director says the tests done at the OSU Scarlet Lab will contribute to research on harnessing fusion and curing cancer.
Schumacher says the laser "delivers its energy up to 25 millionths of a billionth of a second. Another way of saying that is in 25 femtoseconds.”
That’s faster than the time it takes light to travel the width of a strand of hair.
The whole idea behind the laser is sending a relatively small amount of energy – about as much as you’d produce rubbing your hands together once - through a vacuum in a really short burst of time.
But lest you think this is just a really cool toy or movie prop, think again. It will be used to contribute to research on harnessing fusion and curing cancer.
Schumacher says he’s really excited to finally start running tests, but part of the laser’s mission is already done.
“This laser has served as an educational platform that’s unlike any other," says Schumacher. "These students can say that they have worked on a state-of-the-art facility. They have built things and done things that no other student can claim to match.”
More than 25 undergraduate and graduate students have worked on designing, engineering and building this laser.
Franki Aymond is one of those grad students. She says she sometimes like to say, “we’re going to cure cancer, solve the energy crisis and protect national security, so no big deal. But honestly we’re not going to be treating patients right in here, we’re not going to be a power plant. But we do the basic research that makes all these things possible.”
The students here talk about lasers like they are a calling; a mission for life.
Patrick Poole, a graduate assistant in the Scarlet Lab says his interests in lasers started at a young age.
“Every kid has an interest in lasers," he says. "When you want to be an astronaut when you’re little and then you grow up and see Star Trek and everything. It’s not that cool yet, but it’s nice to be able to help to get us up to that point.”
Schumacher, the lab’s associate director, says popular culture often gets people interested in lasers. He remembers seeing that famous scene from the James Bond film, Gold Finger, where Bond is tied down and threatened with a giant laser capable of cutting steel.
But, if anything, Schumacher says movies overestimate a laser’s power.
“Lasers can blow holes through armored plating, they can cut things off but it’s hard. It takes a really big laser to do that and that’s why we don’t use lasers to do that generally. There are better ways.”
When fired up for testing, the laser will be shot through vacuum sealed tubes into a testing chamber, seen at the far right. That chamber is also air tight.
Schumacher assures me this laser will be used for more benign purposes anyway.
“We’ll be using this laser to create antimatter, we’re going to use this laser to generate new forms of x-ray radiation and proton beams which may allow us to develop new cancer treatments. We’re going to use this laser to generate pure beams of neutrons generated by light, something that’s not been done before and if we’re successful we may be able to use this laser to protect our national borders from the smuggling of dangerous materials.”
The lab will start running tests this fall, but no one expects to solve the energy crisis or cure cancer immediately. Breakthroughs can take years or decades.
Then again, maybe one is just around to corner.
You can check out a video of the laser's "first light" here.