Zap! I Sunk Your Battle Ship… With a Laser

By Patrick Morgan | January 21, 2011 5:34 pm

Weapons-grade lasers still sound like the stuff of science fiction, but thanks to a major breakthrough by researchers at the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico, the Navy has taken a big step toward making this bit of sci-fi real. With the Free Electron Laser (FEL) program, the Navy hopes to use laser beams to blast enemies out of the sea and sky, and for the first time, they’re starting to generate enough power to do so, with the newfound ability to create a megawatt-level laser beam.

“The injector performed as we predicted all along,” said Dr. Dinh Nguyen, senior project leader for the FEL program at the lab. “But until now, we didn’t have the evidence to support our models. We were so happy to see our design, fabrication and testing efforts finally come to fruition. We’re currently working to measure the properties of the continuous electron beams, and hope to set a world record for the average current of electrons.” [Office of Naval Research]

To generate a death laser, scientists use an injector to charge electrons, and then pass these highly-charged particles through magnetic fields until they emit laser light. The hardest part of the project, or course, wasn’t merely to generate a laser: it was to cross certain thresholds so that the laser would be more than a pesky, very bright light.

One of the biggest hurdles the superlaser program has faced is how to generate the minimum 100 kilowatts of power needed to turn the Free Electron Laser (FEL) from an annoying light to shine in other ship’s eyes [sic] to an apocalyptic beam of destruction. Until now, the prototype laser has only been able to generate about 14 kilowatts, but the Navy believes it has breached a power barrier. Scientists at Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico tested a new injector on December 20 that produced enough electrons to “generate megawatt-class laser beams for the Navy’s next-generation weapon system.” [Digital Trends]

So what’s so great about using lasers as weapons? And is that the only thing they can do?

[The] arrival of a superlaser for maritime defense is a potential gamechanger. It would represent a speed-of-light weapon that never has to be reloaded, feeding on a ship’s generator, to burn through incoming missiles or aircraft. And that’s not all: program manager Quentin Saulter told Danger Room in November that the Free Electron Laser can be used as a sensor, a tracker or a guidance system for a ship’s conventional weapons. [Wired]

But even though the Navy is now nine months ahead of schedule in their death-laser goals, don’t expect to see these beams emanating from ships anytime soon; the first maritime tests of the Free Electron Laser are scheduled for 2018. Until then, the Sun will cling to its spot as the greatest photon emitter on the seas.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Technology
  • Georg

    This ships design reminds me of
    “Monitor” and “Virginia” from civil war times.
    But this:
    “…scientists use an injector to charge electrons,…”
    is of course utter nonsense.

  • roflmao

    A powerful combination indeed, marketing daftness + military daftness = outstandingly asinine PR performance!

  • Palpatine

    Next step: Deathstar.

  • Cyber

    How long before the Chinese steal this technology? Since we are developing the laser with money borrowed from China, it might make more sense to develop and fund it jointly so we don’t have to pay them back, and they don’t have to steal it…or is that too transparent?

    I’m curious as to how this would be implemented as far as ship-to-ship targeting, given curvature of the Earth, straightness of laser beams, and line-of-sight/proximity requirements. Wouldn’t the laser need to be air-based? Also, the Illustration shows a close-in laser battle which doesn’t seem likely given the long range of missile options.

  • JMW

    How about floating a balloon over the ship dangling a convex reflector. Bounce the laser off the reflector and to a target over the horizon…

  • Dan Zed

    Congratulations on being the 112th mainstream blog outlet to faithfully regurgitate this latest military industrial complex PR blurb. Those whacky boffins just never tire of deaming up new mega-weapons do they ? (oh, using your money by the way.)

  • Dr. Joseph

    The FeL program has been underway since the early 70s by the DARPA/Army. ONR is behind the power curve in so far as the power requirements for a basic laser weapon system.

    There are two types of FeL, one being cryogenic and the other ambient, the Navy is developing an ambient version. The minimum 100 kilowatts (kw) of power needed to turn the Free Electron Laser (FeL) beam for destruction may damage a close target of a few 100 meters. One really needs minimum of 800 kw to effectively engage a medium hard target to have a working laser weapon system.

    It took approximately 37 years to get from 12.8 microns to 14 kw, so meeting 100 kw by 2018 is somewhat a dream unless there is a “major” break in it’s technology as a laser system. One really needs approximately 800 kw to deliver or have an effective weapon system for somewhat “hard” targets.

    Just the “tip-of-the-iceberg”.


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