May 18, 2024

“Dangerously Powerful” Laser Experiment Sets Record in University Hallway

Left to right: Eric Rosenthal, a physicist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory; Anthony Valenzuela, a physicist at the U.S. Army Research Lab; and Andrew Goffin, a UMD electrical and computer engineering college student, align optics at a porthole in the wall in order to send the laser beam from the lab down the hallway. Credit: Intense Laser-Matter Interactions Lab, UMD
Their efforts were to momentarily transfigure thin air into a fiber optic cable television– or, more particularly, an air waveguide– that would guide light for 10s of meters. These air waveguides have many prospective applications associated to gathering or transferring light, such as identifying light discharged by climatic pollution, long-range laser interaction or even laser weaponry.
The scientists conducted their record-setting atmospheric alchemy during the night to avoid inconveniencing (or zapping) colleagues or unwary students during the workday. They had to get their safety treatments authorized before they could repurpose the corridor.
” It was an actually distinct experience,” states Andrew Goffin, a UMD electrical and computer system engineering graduate trainee who worked on the job and is a lead author on the resulting journal post. “Theres a lot of work that enters into shooting lasers outside the laboratory that you dont need to handle when youre in the laboratory– like putting up curtains for eye safety. It was certainly tiring.”
Distributions of the laser light collected after the corridor journey without a waveguide (left) and with a waveguide (right). Credit: Intense Laser-Matter Interactions Lab, UMD
The researchers struck a roadblock in extending their experiments to tens of meters: Their lab is too small and moving the laser is unwise. Hence, a hole in a hallway and the wall becoming lab space.
” There were major challenges: the big scale-up to 50 meters forced us to reconsider the basic physics of air waveguide generation, plus wanting to send a high-power laser down a 50-meter-long public hallway naturally activates major safety problems,” Milchberg states. “Fortunately, we got outstanding cooperation from both the physics and from the Maryland environmental security workplace!”
Without fiber optic cable televisions or waveguides, a beam– whether from a laser or a flashlight– will continually expand as it takes a trip. A beams strength can drop to un-useful levels if permitted to spread out unattended. Whether you are trying to recreate a sci-fi laser blaster or to spot pollutant levels in the environment by pumping them full of energy with a laser and catching the launched light, it pays to guarantee effective, concentrated shipment of the light.
Milchbergs potential solution to this difficulty of keeping light restricted is extra light– in the form of ultra-short laser pulses. This project developed on previous work from 2014 in which his laboratory showed that they could utilize such laser pulses to shape waveguides in the air.
The brief pulse strategy utilizes the capability of a laser to provide such a high intensity along a path, called a filament, that it produces a plasma– a phase of matter where electrons have been torn devoid of their atoms. This energetic course heats up the air, so it leaves a path and expands of low-density air in the lasers wake. This process looks like a tiny variation of lighting and thunder where the lightning bolts energy turns the air into a plasma that explosively expands the air, producing the thunderclap; the popping sounds the scientists heard along the beam path were the small cousins of thunder.
But these low-density filament courses on their own werent what the group needed to guide a laser. The researchers desired a high-density core (the same as internet fiber optic cables). So, they created an arrangement of numerous low-density tunnels that naturally diffuse and combine into a moat surrounding a denser core of unperturbed air.
The 2014 experiments used a set plan of simply four laser filaments, but the new experiment benefited from an unique laser setup that automatically scales up the variety of filaments depending upon the laser energy; the filaments naturally distribute themselves around a ring.
The researchers revealed that the method could extend the length of the air waveguide, increasing the power they could deliver to a target at the end of the hallway. At the conclusion of the lasers journey, the waveguide had kept about 20% of the light that otherwise would have been lost from their target area. The range was about 60 times further than their record from previous experiments. The groups calculations recommend that they are not yet near the theoretical limit of the technique, and they say that much greater guiding performances should be quickly attainable with the method in the future.
” If we had a longer hallway, our results reveal that we could have adjusted the laser for a longer waveguide,” states Andrew Tartaro, a UMD physics graduate student who worked on the task and is an author on the paper. “But we got our guide right for the corridor we have.”
The researchers also did shorter eight-meter tests in the lab where they examined the physics playing out while doing so in more information. For the shorter test they managed to deliver about 60% of the potentially lost light to their target.
The popping sound of the plasma formation was put to useful use in their tests. Besides being a sign of where the beam was, it also provided the scientists with data. They used a line of 64 microphones to determine the length of the waveguide and how strong the waveguide was along its length (more energy going into making the waveguide translates to a louder pop).
The group found that the waveguide lasted for simply hundredths of a 2nd prior to dissipating back into thin air. However thats eons for the laser bursts the scientists were sending out through it: Light can traverse more than 3,000 km because time.
Based on what the researchers gained from their simulations and experiments, the team is preparing experiments to further improve the length and performance of their air waveguides. They likewise prepare to assist different colors of light and to investigate if a much faster filament pulse repetition rate can produce a waveguide to transport a constant high-power beam.
” Reaching the 50-meter scale for air waveguides literally blazes the path for even longer waveguides and numerous applications”, Milchberg says. “Based on brand-new lasers we are soon to get, we have the dish to extend our guides to one kilometer and beyond.”
Reference: “Optical assisting in 50-meter-scale air waveguides” by A. Goffin, I. Larkin, A. Tartaro, A. Schweinsberg, A. Valenzuela, E. W. Rosenthal and H. M. Milchberg, 23 January 2023, Physical Review X.DOI: 10.1103/ PhysRevX.13.011006.

These air waveguides have many possible applications related to collecting or transmitting light, such as detecting light released by climatic contamination, long-range laser communication or even laser weapons. “Theres a lot of work that goes into shooting lasers outside the lab that you dont have to deal with when youre in the laboratory– like putting up drapes for eye safety. Without fiber optic cable televisions or waveguides, a light beam– whether from a flashlight or a laser– will continually expand as it travels. Whether you are attempting to recreate a science fiction laser blaster or to spot contaminant levels in the atmosphere by pumping them full of energy with a laser and recording the released light, it pays to ensure effective, focused delivery of the light.
At the conclusion of the lasers journey, the waveguide had actually kept about 20% of the light that otherwise would have been lost from their target area.

A laser is sent down a UMD hallway in an experiment to corral light as it makes a 45-meter journey. Credit: Intense Laser-Matter Interactions Lab, UMD
Its not at every university that laser pulses powerful enough to burn paper and skin are sent blazing down a hallway. However thats what took place in UMDs Energy Research Facility, a plain looking structure on the northeast corner of campus. If you check out the practical white and gray hall now, it appears like any other university hall– as long as you do not peak behind a cork board and spot the metal plate covering a hole in the wall.
However for a handful of nights in 2021, UMD Physics Professor Howard Milchberg and his associates changed the hallway into a lab: The glossy surfaces of the doors and a water fountain were covered to avoid possibly blinding reflections; connecting corridors were obstructed off with signs, care tape, and unique laser-absorbing black drapes; and scientific devices and cable televisions inhabited typically open strolling area.
As members of the team tackled their work, a snapping noise warned of the precariously effective course the laser blazed down the hall. Sometimes the beams journey ended at a white ceramic block, filling the air with louder pops and a metallic tang. Each night, a researcher sat alone at a computer in the adjacent laboratory with a walkie-talkie and performed requested modifications to the laser.