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UK's Vulcan laser set for £85M upgrade to 20PW output

27 Sep 2023

Central Laser Facility funding is expected to deliver the world's most powerful laser pulses.

The UK’s Central Laser Facility has been awarded an £85 million grant to upgrade its “Vulcan” system - with the aim of turning it into the most powerful laser in the world.

The current Vulcan source has been delivering 1 petawatt pulses for more than 25 years, and the six-year program will support construction of what will become known as “Vulcan 20-20”.

That name reflects the fact that the new facility will feature one beam capable of delivering 20 petawatt pulses, alongside eight additional high-intensity beams producing a pulse energy of up to 20 kJ.

“This is a 20-fold increase in power which is expected to make it the most powerful laser in the world,” stated the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) funding body in a release announcing the upgrade.

While the existing Vulcan laser represented the “state-of-the-art” in high-power lasers when it was first built, other facilities - notably the various sources at the Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI) sites in eastern Europe - have since raised power levels to 10 petawatts, while the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California is able to produce the megajoule-scale bursts of energy required for laser fusion.

In addition to that, the Vulcan laser has been oversubscribed with applications since opening in 1997, which UKRI says demonstrates the high-level of scientific need for a next-generation UK laser facility.

Both elements of the upgrade will rely on the Nobel-winning optical parametric chirped-pulse amplification (OPCPA) technique, shortening Vulcan’s current 1 PW pulse duration from 500 femtoseconds to just 20 femtoseconds.

“The Vulcan 20-20 laser will help us better understand various scientific areas, from astrophysical phenomena like supernovae and solar flares to the potential of laser fusion as a clean energy source,” noted UKRI.

“Planned experiments include creating matter-antimatter pairs using strong electromagnetic fields, usually only found in space, and studying a new particle acceleration method for potential ion radiotherapy treatments to treat cancer.”

CLF director John Collier added: “Vulcan has been the flagship laser at CLF for many years, and widely recognised internationally as a pioneering facility.

“Over the past 40 years, it has made important contributions to plasma physics research and hundreds of PhD students have been trained at the facility.

“It is timely for Vulcan to undergo its next major upgrade, making it ready to serve a new generation of scientists, ensuring the UK retains its leadership role in this field.”

Pulse compression
Professor Mark Thomson, who is both the executive chair of the UK’s Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC) and UKRI's “champion for infrastructure”, said of the planned investment:

“The Vulcan 20-20 program will keep the Central Laser Facility at the cutting edge of the highest-power laser science and enable entirely new experiments in crucial areas such as renewable energy research.”

CLF said that the upgraded facility will offer two large experimental areas located on the ground floor of the site, which is part of the wider Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

“The current Target Area West will have its walls thickened and it will be enlarged to the south and west,” it added. “Target Area Petawatt will have the same footprint, but the current PW capability will be removed.

“Both experimental areas will have new interaction chambers capable of fielding a new suite of plasma diagnostics. Located between the two experimental areas will be a new compressor area which will be used to compress the 20 PW pulses that are generated on the second floor.”

The project is set to create a number of new jobs for scientists at different stages of their careers, as well as for designers, engineers, and technicians, said UKRI.

STFC and CLF are currently recruiting in support of the Vulcan 20-20 upgrade, with positions including Vulcan Group Leader currently being advertised via the CLF careers website.

• Another giant laser facility - the OMEGA laser at the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE) - has been awarded $18 million to design and prototype key technologies for its proposed “Extended Performance Optical Parametric Amplifier Line (EP-OPAL)”.

“This project will lay the groundwork for constructing a facility that would house the highest-power laser system in the world,” stated the US National Science Foundation, with Rochester hoping that the facility would be built at the LLE upon completion of the design project.

Like Vulcan, the new system would be based on the OPCPA technique devised at LLE by 2018 physics Nobel laureates Donna Strickland and Gérard Mourou, with Strickland saying in a Rochester release:

“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.”

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