US Department of Energy invests $4.1 million for UT-Austin’s Petawatt Laser

Kevin Vu

The United States Department of Energy announced an $18 million grant to support and expand the capabilities of their lasers in facilities across the U.S. in late October, and UT-Austin will receive $4.1 million over the course of three years.

In 2018, the department established a network of facilities with ultra-intensity lasers across the nation, including UT’s Texas Petawatt Laser, one of the highest-powered lasers in the world, in hopes of restoring the U.S.’s top position in high-intensity laser research.

Todd Ditmire, the director for the Center for High Energy Density Science, said the laser produces a power 10 times more powerful than all of the power plants in the world. He said the laser can be used in many ways.

“We study astrophysics. We study what plasmas look like in high temperatures. We study ways of accelerating particles using the very intense light,” Ditmire said. “I had a student, and we looked at how an explosion driven by the laser might simulate a supernova explosion.”

Sandra Bruce, a research scientist for the laser who is managing its upgrade, said the grant will largely be used to to integrate three additional lasers coordinated to work on the same experiment.

“Those three (beams) don’t need to be shooting on the same target at the same time,” Bruce said. “It could actually increase the number of users that are able to use our facility, having all of these different lasers and different target chambers available.”

Bruce said to allow the three lasers to work together, the team plans on making a new facility called Texas Relativistic Intensity Ultrafast Multi-beam Plasma science Facility using part of the grant.

“This investment is really important for the future of not just laser experiments (and) high-energy-density experiments in the U.S. but also as a training facility,” Bruce said. “We have students working and helping with the laser … Even undergraduates are helping to build this upgrade.”

Michael Donovan, the associate director of the center, said the network allows people from around the world to be able to use the high-intensity lasers for various research purposes. 

“People come from all over the world for these experiments,” Donovan said. “We have groups scheduled in the future right now from the Czech Republic, from Germany … and from the University of California, San Diego.”