DARPA donates $7 million to UCF laser program

Photo from UCF Today

UCF received a $7 million contract with the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to increase the intensity of the laser currently used for research by professor Zhengu Chang and his team.

Chang, from the College of Optics and Photonics, is currently conducting attosecond research, in collaboration with the University of Ottawa and the University of California, Berkeley, to help the federal agency better understand the potential uses of laser technology. In funding UCF, DARPA is giving American scientists the opportunity to become leaders in the attosecondfield of science. The research Chang is conducting will allow scientists to view chemical reactions in atoms at the molecular level, to create ultrafast sensors and detectors.

“The subject of creating short laser pulses is important,” BahaaSaleh, director and dean of CREOL, said. “If you want to take pictures of things that are moving, you must buy a camera that is very fast. Either it has a fast shutter or a fast flash.”

If scientists need to record interactions between electrons in atoms, attoseconds are at stake. This is why the research being conducted by Chang and his team, as well as those working with him across the country, is relevant to the government agencies and the general public as well.

“Typically, a camera with a flash can create a flash of one millisecond, a millisecond is one thousandth of a second, so if you have something much faster, such as a bullet or a horse, it would be blurred,” Saleh said.

“In the past, the laser was too slow to see how fast electrons moved,” Chang said. “The main thing is to essentially see how we can observe and control these electron motions, also in the command stage like in solid state devices.”

This research can lead to a variety of potential uses. If this experiment is successful and DARPA approves UCF to move forward, the U.S. will be at the forefront of the technological frontier for lasers.

“Right now, we’re doing calculations,” Eric Cunningham, CREOL graduate Ph.D. student said. “We’re figuring out how large our mirrors and lenses need to be so we don’t destroy them because of the high energy we’re using.”

Other universities have received grants for this type of research. In Europe, this research is conducted mostly in scientific institutes, such as the Extreme Light Infrastructure Center. In the U.S., graduate students conduct most of the research for these experiments.

Also aiding Chang in his research is Michael Chini, a postdoctoral researcher, who specifically helps work on the applications of the extremely short and confined attosecond laser pulses to both measure and control the electrons in atoms and molecules.

“The research is on the cutting edge of both physics and optics, and I find it to be very exciting because the students and postdocs need to find solutions to problems that no one has really considered before,” Chini said in an email. “The ultrafast laser field is very competitive, and new applications are constantly being found in both research and industry, so it keeps you on your toes as a researcher.”

This contract allows the federal agency the freedom to work closely with UCF in order to work with the university so that all research is accurately documented and recorded. With the support of the military backing this program,UCF will have the largest attosecond laser in the world. While Chang is still working through Phase One of the program, his team has created the front piece of the device, which will reach 60 feet in length at completion.

As listed on the program website, teams will first begin developing components for the laser and commence proof-of-principle demonstrations. In Phase Two, teams will shift focus to component integration and laboratory demonstrations aimed at achieving performance milestones. In Phase Three, teams will demonstrate their capabilities in a relevant defense operating environment. The goal of his research would be to create a switch that enables his team to control electrons in atoms.

“The principle of the switch that we use in computer chips nowadays, for example, is just one application. There are many other applications,” Chang said.

“What is the ultimate limit you can store information, like with a hard drive for example? Those are the questions we want to understand,” Chang said.

Published in UCF’s Central Florida Future.

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