A recent breakthrough may lead to a powerful laser that gives U.S. Navy ships the upper hand in combat.
As part of the U.S. Navy’s research into developing a unique technology called Free Electron Laser or FEL, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory have announced that they’ve successfully built and tested a device called an injector that can produce the type of electrons needed to generate weapons-grade megawatt laser beams.
Originally invented in 1976 by John Madey, a physicist at Stanford University, the Free Electron Laser was of particular interest for personnel working under the Defense Department’s Strategic Defense Initiative, better known as Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” program.
And there’s a reason why.
Typically, lasers are generated by a machine that uses a combination of energy, mirrors and a lens to excite certain atoms to the point of emitting light particles called photons and then turning them into an intense and focused beam of light. Every laser operates on a specific wavelength, which is determined by the “lasing medium,” or in layman’s terms, the type of atoms used to produce the laser.
But FELs are generated with an entirely different technology that involve having an injector send a pulse of supercharged electrons through a particle accelerator, which allows for the beam to be fired at a wide range of wavelengths and for a long period of time. This means that FEL machines can be configured to shoot lasers at frequencies where the beam won’t weaken much as it travels through the air. Other lasers tend to get absorbed and scattered by moisture in the atmosphere.
Against an enemy, a weapons-grade caliber FEL would be an enormous advantage. Warships equipped with this technology can now shoot down incoming missiles regardless of environmental conditions. The laser can also be fired continuously without downtime between shots, making it capable of taking out multiple targets simultaneously. The achievement of a weapons-grade FEL would be such a boost to the Navy that science and fiction writer Doug Beason has called it the “Holy Grail of Lasers.”
For now, the current FEL power record is 14 kilowatts — a step closer, but still quite a distance from the 70 kilowatts necessary to make a 1 megawatt beam, laser engineer Olivia Koski graciously pointed out to us on Twitter. (She also noted that as little as 100 kilowatts is potent enough for a weapon.)
The U.S. Navy, which recently acquired Madey’s FEL, has committed to pouring 163 million dollars into research they hope would deliver a testable prototype by 2018. And as progress continues, FELs might bring us closer to what is becoming an increasingly sci-fi era of warfare.
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