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   from the issue of August 24, 2006

UNL to unveil world-class laser


For months construction workers and physicists have prepared the sub-basement of Behlen Laboratory for the arrival of a laser so powerful and ultra-fast that it has the potential for reaching the highest intensity ever produced by any laser in the world.

WARMING UP - Three physicists prepare the Diocles laser for a test in the Extreme Light Laboratory in the sub-basement of...
 WARMING UP - Three physicists prepare the Diocles laser for a test in the Extreme Light Laboratory in the sub-basement of Behlen Laboratory. The laser will be unveiled to the public Aug. 25.

The new Extreme Light Laboratory will greet its first public visitors at an unveiling celebration at 2:30 p.m. Aug. 25, where physicist Donald Umstadter, director and principal scientist of the laboratory, will offer tours of the facility and the chance to see the new ultra-fast, high intensity Diocles laser.

Producing more power than 100,000 Hoover Dams in bursts lasting only only 30 billionths of one millionth of a second, the Diocles Laser and Umstadter are putting UNL at the forefront of international high-field physics and laser research.

"I believe we have one of the world's state-of-the-art laser laboratories," said Umstadter. "We hope with our laser to reach the highest intensity ever produced by any laser in the world."

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



Before coming to UNL, as a professor at the University of Michigan and one of the founders of the Center for Ultra-fast Optical Science, Umstadter worked with Gerard A. Mourou, inventor of the technique that enabled the development of compact lasers - the forerunners of Diocles.

"When you focus the laser to its highest intensity, you are creating conditions that have never been produced on earth," he said. "In fact, we can produce pressures that are greater than those at the core of the sun. You might say we light-up a table-top star 10 times every second."

Such extreme conditions inevitably lead to new scientific discoveries, he said, and eventually to new technologies that benefit society.

Small size and high power also mean Diocles can enable new technologies and applications never before possible. Diocles produces gamma rays (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.

Umstadter named the laser for the Greek mathematician Diocles, who around 200 B.C. invented the parabolic mirror to focus light, the same mirror used in UNL's 21st-century laser. He hopes to discover what happens to matter when it interacts with light at its most intense - and the best way to produce such extreme light is with the new laser.

Umstadter and a team of scientists, students and postdocs came to UNL in January 2005, attracted 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."

The new lab also is acting as a magnet to attract some of the best and the brightest students - the 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 the Physics Department this week. Ashley Ernesti worked on numerical modeling experiments in the lab this summer before starting her freshman year Aug. 21.

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.

Umstadter is already 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 is funding his use of the laser for generating unique X-rays.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funds the development of compact laser-driven electron accelerators.

This is UNL's plan for research success in action, said Prem Paul, vice chancellor for Research.

"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.


What: A laser that produces more power than 100,000 Hoover Dams in bursts lasting 30 billionths of a millionth of a second. Named after the Greek mathemetician who formulated the math behind parabolic curves. Parabolic mirrors are used in the laser.

When: 2:30 p.m., Aug. 25 Open House to unveil the new laser.

Where: Extreme Light Laboratory in the sub-basement of Behlen Laboratory.



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