The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded the University of Rochester nearly $18 million over three years to design and prototype key technologies for EP-OPAL, a new facility dedicated to the study of ultrahigh-intensity laser-matter interactions. The facility could be built at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE) upon completion of the design project. The funding, part of NSF’s Mid-Scale Research Infrastructure-1 Program, supports the agency in positioning the United States at the cutting edge of global science and engineering leadership.
“The NSF’s design award represents further recognition that LLE is one of the scientific leaders in our national effort to advance the understanding of light, matter, and even the evolution of the universe itself,” says University of Rochester president Sarah Mangelsdorf. “With the support of this award, we will continue to build on Rochester’s pioneering legacy in optical science and laser technology, a history that includes breakthroughs that have already transformed medicine, computing, and other fields.
“We are grateful for the support of the NSF in selecting Rochester to carry out this important work. We also are thankful for the support of our congressional delegation, particularly Senators Schumer and Gillibrand and Congressman Morelle, for their efforts to advance the work of LLE, the University, and the Rochester region.”
High-intensity lasers enable a large and important body of pioneering science—from plasma science to particle acceleration, laboratory astrophysics to laser-driven nuclear physics—that has resulted in scientific, medical, commercial, and industrial applications.
The Omega Laser Facility at LLE houses two very powerful lasers—OMEGA and OMEGA EP—that are used by scientists from around the world. EP-OPAL—which stands for OMEGA EP-coupled Optical Parametric Amplifier Lines (OPAL)—will be designed to add two of the most powerful lasers in the world and to harness the capabilities of the high-energy OMEGA EP laser. The facility is envisioned to provide laser capabilities beyond those currently available internationally, helping to reestablish US leadership in the field of high-peak-power lasers and the fundamental science that it enables.
A successful EP-OPAL design would enable the highest-power laser system in the world, according to principal investigator Jonathan Zuegel, a distinguished scientist at LLE and a professor of optics at Rochester. “Its two laser beams combined will deliver laser pulses with peak power approaching the same total power as incident on the Earth’s surface from the Sun, but focused into an area smaller than the cross-section of a human hair,” he says.
The project leverages the expertise, resources, and talents of partner institutions nationwide, including six universities and one private company:
“It’s thrilling to see chirped pulse amplification come full circle with Rochester once again leading the charge to develop and implement the most powerful lasers in the world.” —Nobel laureate Donna Strickland ’89 (PhD)
- University at Buffalo
- University of California–Irvine
- University of Notre Dame
- University of Maryland
- University of Michigan
- Ohio State University
- Plymouth Grating Laboratory in Massachusetts
Accelerating high-impact research in frontier science
An experimental facility like EP-OPAL—one that is housed at a university and openly accessible to a broad user base—could open the doors to a new era of high-impact research.
“Super-intense laser beams allow us to create extreme conditions in our own laboratories that are now found only in the most exotic parts of the universe,” says Philip Bucksbaum, a Stanford University physicist, a former president of the American Physical Society, and chair of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine committee that delivered the 2018 report Opportunities in Intense Ultrafast Lasers: Reaching for the Brightest Light. “The EP-OPAL facility design responds directly to recommendations in this report and other recent strategic planning activities by the NAS and the American Physical Society Division of Plasma Physics by combining the capabilities of solid-state lasers like OMEGA EP with those of ultrafast femtosecond-duration lasers based on chirped-pulse amplification. This new award keeps Rochester on the path to build and house a unique research tool of particularly high value to the US research community,” says Bucksbaum.
Nobel laureate and Rochester alumna Donna Strickland ’89 (PhD), a professor of physics at the University of Waterloo, shares Bucksbaum’s enthusiasm: “It’s thrilling to see chirped pulse amplification come full circle with Rochester once again leading the charge to develop and implement the most powerful lasers in the world.”
As a graduate student working at LLE in the 1980s, Strickland and her thesis advisor Gérard Mourou invented chirped pulse amplification, an approach for generating ultrashort, high-intensity laser pulses. Their work revolutionized the field of high-intensity laser physics, earning them the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018. “The EP-OPAL design and prototyping project will take laser science and technology to the next level using optical parametric chirped pulse amplification,” she says.
Connecting the US and global scientific communities
The United States is at an inflection point with regard to laser science and technology. Existing capabilities and resources span national laboratories, academia, and the private sector. New laser facilities—including NSF ZEUS at the University of Michigan—are coming online soon. The EP-OPAL design and prototyping project award positions NSF to play a pivotal role in the scientific community by bridging the gap between major research facilities and individually led research programs with another, larger midscale research infrastructure that complements NSF ZEUS.
The current user base at Rochester already includes hundreds of researchers, scientists, and scholars from the Omega Laser Facility User Group (OLUG) as well as thousands more from the global research community.
“A new facility of this caliber would serve an even broader and more diverse scientific community while enabling revolutionary research experiments across four different areas of frontier science that I will lead along with my co-principal investigators,” says EP-OPAL co-principal investigator Eva Zurek, a chemistry professor at the University at Buffalo and a senior investigator with the Center for Matter at Atomic Pressures (CMAP), an NSF-Physics Frontiers Center hosted at Rochester.
Extending the scientific, technological, and education impact
The potential benefits of EP-OPAL extend beyond the current scientific community. Cutting-edge laser systems and facilities are vital to the ongoing quest of tackling societal grand challenges in energy, national security, manufacturing, and life sciences. Midscale research infrastructures specifically can have significant implications for the economy, security, and competitiveness of the United States.
The new EP-OPAL design award builds on ongoing efforts at Rochester for educational outreach and workforce development and diversification, including CMAP and a recent NSF Regional Innovation Engines Development Award to establish an innovation and economic hub built around the Science, Technology and Engineering of Lasers and Laser Applications Research (STELLAR). Says Mangelsdorf, “With a clear vision for better engaging groups underrepresented in science and engineering, this project embodies our institutional commitment to making the world ever better.”
Government officials expressed their support for the award and project:
US Senator Charles Schumer: “When I brought NSF Director Panchanathan to Rochester to see firsthand the remarkable potential of University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics’ (LLE), I said it would be the key to keeping the US ahead of foreign competitors in the race to create new scientific advances. This award is the critical first step needed to design and advance UR’s proposal to create this new EP-OPAL laser right here in Rochester by leveraging the talent of LLE’s over 400 employees to lead the way on this crucial laser research and innovation endeavor that promises to push the frontiers of U.S. scientific research for decades to come.”
US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand: “Congratulations to the University of Rochester for this investment from NSF. With this design award, the university can advance US leadership in high-intensity laser research with the potential to have profound implications for energy, security, medicine, and more.”
Congressman Joe Morelle: “I join with the entire scientific community on commending the University of Rochester on this well-deserved award. The development of EP-OPAL will provide a unique research environment and prepare the Laboratory for Laser Energetics to lead the country in this cutting-edge research and technology. Congratulations.”