Europe, Asia take lead over US in race to field next generation of lasers

The Sodium Guidestar at the Air Force Research Laboratory's Starfire Optical Range resides on a 6,240 foot hilltop at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. The Guidestar, or NaGS, propagates light into the sodium layer of Earth's mesosphere, enabling atmospheric characterization on dim objects and providing clearer imagery. This guidestar laser technology is currently in use at observatories around the world.


By DAVID J. LYNCH | The Washington Post | Published: December 6, 2017

Europe and Asia have taken a significant lead over the United States in the race to field the next generation of high-intensity lasers for use in medicine, nuclear weapons development, manufacturing and science, according to a new study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Today, 80 percent to 90 percent of new petawatt-class lasers, including all of the most powerful research devices, are found outside the United States even though the first high-intensity laser was developed in 1996 at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

"Although the United States led innovations in high-intensity lasers throughout the 20th century, leadership is rapidly moving to Europe, and in some cases, to Asia as well," the report concluded. "The U.S. has lost its previous dominance."

The stark warning that the United States is missing out on a "second laser revolution" comes as President Donald Trump calls for rejuvenating traditional industries such as coal mining. Elsewhere, U.S. commercial rivals such as China are investing heavily in artificial intelligence and other futuristic sectors.

Through a program called "Made in China 2025," Beijing is providing state support for a comprehensive upgrade of Chinese manufacturing and breakthroughs in advanced sectors such robotics, high-tech shipping and biopharmaceuticals. The program takes direct aim at the sort of cutting-edge industries that the United States long has planned to dominate as low-skilled manufacturing work moved to other nations.

The United States also is in danger of a broader erosion of its global competitiveness. A separate report Wednesday from the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation called for the federal government to develop an assertive strategy to prevent the United States from losing its competitive edge.

Losing the competitiveness race means fewer jobs and slower growth. Countries that create a targeted policy strategy "will win out," said Rob Atkinson, ITIF president.

U.S. companies such as Coherent Radiation and Spectra-Physics, along with defense contractors General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman, pioneered the 20th century commercial laser industry. Lasers today play a role in manufacturing, medical and information technology markets valued at a cumulative $7.5 trillion, according to the report.

Traditional lasers delivered bursts of intense energy from a distance for welding, cutting or military applications. But they were unable to do so quickly. The new petawatt-class devices deliver 1 million billion watts of energy in an almost unimaginably rapid pulse lasting just one-trillionth of a second.

One petawatt is equal to the combined solar power that strikes Arizona, California and Nevada on a sunny day at noon, according to the report.

Such lasers 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," the report said.

The National Academies report paints an alarming picture of an uncoordinated American research effort, with "inadequate" coordination between industry and government scientists. The product of a year-long study by a 15-member expert panel, the report says that early U.S. scientific papers that identified the potential of high-intensity lasers were taken more seriously in Europe and Asia than at home, where a decade of flat federal research investment and flagging corporate investment hampered progress.

"Significant rapid coordinated strategic investments were subsequently made in Europe, Japan, and later in China and elsewhere, but not here," the report says.

European researchers are already at work on an exawatt laser that would be 1,000 times more powerful than today's petawatt devices, which offer hope for more effective clinical cancer treatments as well as precision manufacturing.

The National Academies panel that wrote the study called for the Energy Department, which helped sponsor their work, to develop a plan to better coordinate a fragmented U.S. laser effort. To catch up to European and Asian programs, the United States needs a national strategy to unite universities, corporations and government agencies in a broad network, the report said.

The Energy Department also should plan to field at least one large-scale high-intensity laser facility to facilitate further research, it added.

Today, several U.S. agencies, including the departments of energy and defense and the National Science Foundation, pursue projects in this area.

Chief Electronics Technician Travis Hill operates the console of the Laser Weapon System aboard Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) USS Ponce to track a Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle over the Arabian Gulf on July 13, 2017.

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