World's Brightest Laser Is Literally Changing How We See Things

The set-up at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Extreme Light Laboratory. Extreme Light Laboratory/University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Researchers have used the brightest light source in the world and it’s changing the way we see things. The team from the University of Nebraska have developed a laser light 1 billion times brighter than the surface of the Sun. In doing so, the team discovered it interacts with matter like nothing we’ve seen so far.

As reported in Nature Photonics, over 500 infrared photons were able to be scattered by a single electron into a single X-ray photon. This is an extreme case of the Thomson scattering effect, which allows us to see things as photons bounce off electrons and reach our eyes.

Usually, photons scattered by an electron end up having similar angles and energies, and it doesn’t matter how bright the light source is. But in this new experimental setup, the angles, shapes, and wavelengths of the scattered light were completely different from the original photons.

"When we have this unimaginably bright light, it turns out that the scattering – this fundamental thing that makes everything visible – fundamentally changes in nature," senior author Donald Umstadter, the Leland and Dorothy Olson professor of physics and astronomy, said in a statement.

"So it's as if things appear differently as you turn up the brightness of the light, which is not something you normally would experience," Umstadter added. "(An object) normally becomes brighter, but otherwise, it looks just like it did with a lower light level. But here, the light is changing (the object's) appearance. The light is coming off at different angles, with different colors, depending on how bright it is."

The intense brightness of the laser quickly delivers a huge amount of photons into an electron. This supercharged electron begins moving in a figure eight until it releases all the extra energy into a single X-ray photon.

This step could be crucial for future applications of this phenomenon. High-energy X-ray lasers are already used worldwide to look at complex chemical reactions, which means this process could produce photons that let us see changes inside an atom's nuclei directly.

A USB drive imaged using the ultra-powerful X-ray photons. Extreme Light Laboratory/University of Nebraska-Lincoln

The system is also being used to test several specific theories related to lasers. So far, those couldn’t be tested due to the limitations of the lasers themselves, but it appears that the new system is more than capable of handling the tests.

“There were many theories, for many years, that had never been tested in the lab, because we never had a bright-enough light source to actually do the experiment," Umstadter added. "There were various predictions for what would happen, and we have confirmed some of those predictions.” 

This discovery could be the core technology of the next generation of X-ray lasers.

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