The laser has revolutionized many areas of science and society, providing bright and versatile light sources that transform the ways we investigate science and enable trillions of dollars of commerce. Now a second laser revolution is under way with pulsed petawatt-class lasers (1 petawatt: 1 million billion watts) that deliver nearly 100 times the total world’s power concentrated into a pulse that lasts less than one-trillionth of a second. Such light sources create unique, extreme laboratory conditions that can accelerate and collide intense beams of elementary particles, drive nuclear reactions, heat matter to conditions found in stars, or even create matter out of the empty vacuum.1
These powerful lasers came largely from U.S. engineering, and the science and technology opportunities they enable were discussed in several previous National Academies’ reports.2 Based on these advances, the principal research funding agencies in Europe and Asia began in the last decade to invest heavily in new facilities that will employ these high-intensity lasers for fundamental and applied science.3 No similar programs exist in the United States. This report was commissioned by four U.S. agencies—the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), the Department of Energy’s Office of Science (DOE-SC), and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)—to assess the opportunities and to recommend a path forward for possible U.S. investments in this area of science.
In response to the Statement of Task for this study (stated in the Preface),4 the committee surveyed high-intensity science and related technology to identify science opportunities, to assess the impact of applications, and to assess U.S. technical capabilities. The committee also reviewed the current landscape in the United States for high-intensity science and the development of related technology, and compared it to the recent efforts in Europe.
The committee was asked to focus on particular questions: Is there an explicit or implicit national strategy for stewarding high-intensity science in the United States? If not, can one be formulated, and what is an appropriate structure? Is there a case for a large-scale initiative in this area? Should the United States build facilities for high-intensity science at peak powers of 1 petawatt to 1 exawatt? If so, what should be the parameters and capabilities? Is high-peak-power laser technology development in the United States being well stewarded? What roadmap should the United States follow in this area?
The National Academies assembled a 15-member panel including NAS and NAE members and others with expertise in the relevant science and technology. Following a year spent gathering thousands of pages of information, attending seminars from experts, visiting major laser laboratories in the United States and Europe, and conducting regular telephone meetings, the committee arrived at conclusions and recommendations that constitute a roadmap for action, summarized here in seven summary conclusions and five roadmap recommendations:5
Conclusion 1: The science is important. High-intensity lasers enable a large and important body of science. (See Chapter 5)
Conclusion 2: Applications exist in several areas. Intense ultrafast lasers have broad applicability beyond science to nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship as well as to industry and medicine. Science is a main application of high-intensity lasers, and all applications of high-intensity lasers rely on the fundamental science of high-intensity laser-matter interactions. (See Chapter 6)
Conclusion 3: The community is large but fragmented. There is a large and talented technical community already, but it is fragmented across different disciplines. Coordination between industry and government is limited and often inadequate. The scientists and engineers trained in intense ultrafast lasers contribute to the workforce for applications in photonics and optics, including high-energy lasers for defense and stockpile stewardship.
4 The Preface contains the Statement of Task.
This conclusion is supported by information throughout the document, but especially in Chapter 2. Conclusions 1-3 motivate the committee’s first recommendation:
Recommendation 1: The Department of Energy should create a broad national network, including universities, industry, and government laboratories, in coordination with the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the research arms of the Department of Defense, National Science Foundation, and other federal research organizations, as the cornerstone of a national strategy to support science, applications, and technology of intense and ultrafast lasers.
Conclusion 4: No cross-agency stewardship exists. No single agency currently acts as the steward for high-intensity laser-based research in the United States. Programs are carried out under sponsorship of several different federal agencies, including DOE-SC, NNSA, AFOSR, ONR, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF), according to their various missions and without the overall coordination that exists in Europe.
Conclusion 4 is supported in Chapter 2 and leads to the committee’s second recommendation:
Recommendation 2: To increase integration and coordination in this field, the research agencies (Department of Defense, Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, and others) should engage the scientific stakeholders within the network to define what facilities and laser parameters will best serve research needs, emphasizing parameters beyond the current state of the art in areas critical to frontier science, such as peak power, repetition rate, pulse duration, wavelength, and focusable intensity.
Conclusion 5: The United States has lost its previous dominance. The United States was the leading innovator and dominant user of high-intensity laser technology when it was developed in the 1990s, but Europe and Asia have now grown to dominate this sector through coordinated national and regional research and infrastructure programs. In Europe, this has stimulated the emergence of the Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI) program. At present, 80 to 90 percent of the high-intensity laser systems are overseas, and all of the highest power (multipetawatt) research lasers currently in construction or already built are overseas.
Recommendation 3: The Department of Energy should lead the development of a comprehensive interagency national strategy for high-intensity lasers that includes a program for both developing and operating large-scale laboratory projects; midscale projects such as those hosted at universities; and a technology development program with technology transfer among universities, U.S. industry, and national laboratories.
Conclusion 6: Co-location with existing infrastructure is essential. Co-location of high-intensity lasers with existing infrastructure such as particle accelerators has been recognized as a key advantage of the U.S. laboratories over the ELI concept in Europe.
Recommendation 4: The Department of Energy should plan for at least one large-scale open-access high-intensity laser facility that leverages other major science infrastructure in the Department of Energy complex.
Conclusion 7: University/Laboratory/Industry cooperation is necessary to retain and renew the talent base. Cooperation among all sectors—private industry, research universities, and government laboratories—in the past has proved essential and the current situation could be improved to develop a robust national talent pool and a strong technology base for this fast growing area.6
Based on these conclusions, the committee arrived at its final recommendation:7
Recommendation 5: Agencies should create programs for U.S. scientists and engineers that include mid-scale infrastructure, project operations in high-intensity laser science in the United States, development of key underpinning technologies, and engagement in research at international facilities such as Extreme Light Infrastructure.
Taken together, these five recommendations constitute a national strategy for high-intensity laser science and technology, and lay out a roadmap for implementing this strategy.