In their work toward developing the newest technology for tracking and destroying enemy missiles, scientists at Jefferson Labs recently pumped an astonishing 500 kilovolts into their latest creation, the free-electron laser (FEL) -- a power level never achieved before.
"This is very significant," Quentin Saulter, the program's manager said. Now, the Navy "can speed up the transition of FEL-weapons-system technology" from a lab in Virginia to its ships on the high seas, Wired reports.
The new technology will allow the Navy to utilize the powerful "death ray" to burn up incoming missiles or punch holes in an enemy vessel's hull.
“Five hundred [kilovolts] has been the project goal for a long time,” says George Neil, the FEL associate director at Jefferson Labs. “The injector area is one of the critical areas.”
The free-electron laser is one the U.S. Navy's highest-priority weapons programs. The future of weaponry rests in "fighting at the speed of light and hypersonics," says Rear Adm. Nevin Carr, the Navy's chief of research. “We’re fast approaching the limits of our ability to hit maneuvering pieces of metal in the sky with other maneuvering pieces of metal."
Though the Navy estimates the FEL won't be mounted on ships until the 2020s, the recent energy advancements mark a significant milestone.
Wired offers the nerdy details:
Excite certain kinds of atoms, and light particles — photons — radiate out. Reflect that light back into the excited atoms, and more photons appear. But unlike a lightbulb, which glows in every direction, this second batch of photons travels only in one direction, and in a single color, or wavelength. Which slice of the spectrum depends on the “gain medium” — the type of atoms — you use to generate the beam. But the free-electron laser is unique: It doesn’t use a medium, just supercharged electrons run through a racetrack of superconductors and magnets — an accelerator, to be technical — until it produces a beam that can operate on multiple wavelengths.
That means the beam from the free-electron laser won’t lose potency as it runs through all the crud in ocean air, because its operators will be able to adjust its wavelengths to compensate. And if you want to make it more powerful, all you need to do is add electrons.
But to add electrons, you need to inject pressure into your power source, so the electrons shake out and run through the racetrack. That’s done through a gun called an injector. In the basement of a building in Jefferson Labs, a 240-foot racetrack uses a 300-kilovolt injector to pressurize the electrons out of 200 kilowatts of power and send them shooting through the accelerator.
Translation: that's one powerful beam. Right now, the Navy's FEL is the most powerful beam in the world, able to cut through 20 feet of solid steel every second.
Think that's impressive? If the Navy reaches its ultimate goal -- one megawatt of laser power -- the weapon will be able to burn through 2,000 feet of steel per second. Yowza.
Because of the work being done at places like Jefferson Labs, the Navy is now one big step closer.