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Navy Breaks World Record With Futuristic Free-Electron Laser

  • Navy Tests Free Electron Laser

    Carlos Hernandez-Garcia, director of the injector and electron gun systems for the free-electron laser program, shows off the navy's futuristic gun.Kelley Vlahos

  • Free Electron Laser (FEL)

    The battleships of the future will be equipped with megawatt-class free electron lasers.

The Navy just set a new world record, a test blast from a new type of laser that can shoot cruise missiles from the sky in seconds with a deadly accuracy that simply doesn't exist in the military’s vast arsenal today. 

And that new record moved them one step closer to proving the "holy grail" of laser guns is real.

To create incredible power requires incredible energy. After all, the more power one puts into a laser accelerator, the more powerful and precise the light beam that comes out on the other end. During a private tour of the Jefferson Lab in Newport News, VA., on Friday, FoxNews.com saw scientists blast unprecedented levels of power into a prototype accelerator, producing a supercharged electron beam that can burn through 20 feet of steel per second.

Scientists there, in coordination with the Office of Naval Research (ONR), injected a sustained 500 kilovolts (KV) of juice into a prototype accelerator where the existing limit had been 320 kV -- a world’s record, the scientists explained. 

“This is brand new -- it has not been done before, in the world,” said Carlos Hernandez-Garcia, director of the injector and electron gun systems for the FEL (Free Electron Laser) program, who added that Friday’s breakthrough was the culmination of six years of development.

But what does this mean to the Navy, and to war fighting in particular? Quentin Salter, program manager for ONR, said the test steps up the transition to newer, more powerful laser technologies.

“It’s huge in regards to upgrading the laser power beam quality,” he said. According to ONR officials, that laser beam will eventually perform at a staggering “megawatt class,” a measure of the laser's strength. Right now, the accelerator at Jefferson Lab is performing at just 14 Kilowatts. 

Next up for the tech: additional weaponization. The Navy just awarded Boeing a contract worth up to $163 million to take that technology and package it as a 100 kW weapons system, one that the Navy hopes to use not only to destroy things but for on-ship communications, tracking and detection, too -- using a fraction of the energy such applications use now, plus with more accuracy. Saulter said they hope to meet that goal by 2015.

“We’re fast approaching the limits of our ability to hit maneuvering pieces of metal in the sky with other piece of flying metal,” explained Rear Admiral Nevin P. Carr Jr., Chief of Naval Research, in an interview with FoxNews.com. That’s why he calls free election laser technology or “directed energy” tech “our marquee program.”

While Carr acknowledges that this is not “something that we are going to wave a wand at and it’s going to appear” -- in fact, the Navy doesn't expect to hit the ultimate megawatt goal until the 2020s -- there have been several incremental victories that have pushed this project ahead of schedule that have scientists and program managers excited.

“With every single milestone, [the naysayers] have been proven wrong,” said Dr. George R. Neil, associate director of the FEL program at Jefferson Lab. Neil pointed to a bottle of champagne in the control room -- that one was for when they met the 10 kW threshold four years ago, nearly a decade after the Navy began funding the development of the FEL accelerator at the Newport News facility. 

Today, Neil and others have shown that they have the ability to harness super-conducting electron power.

The military already uses lasers across the spectrum. What make this technology different (and its potential so extraordinary) is its power source. 

The military now uses solid-state lasers that use crystals and glass, as well as chemical lasers that use often dangerous liquid materials. The FEL is different. It requires only electrons, which can be created from matter inside the injector with energy that is constantly recycled. In other words, it uses less shipboard power than current weapons systems. “It won’t slow down the ship,” Saulter said.

In addition, according to Navy officials, the FEL laser can perform at different wavelengths, meaning it can operate at lower and more powerful levels so that it can be used for different applications, which other laser technology cannot. It is also not vulnerable to atmospheric conditions, as solid-state lasers are, making them wane in power depending on the weather.

“The fact that you can tune the wavelength, that’s what makes it different. You can optimize the beam for the conditions of the day -- that’s really powerful,” said Adm. Carr. “So in a warfighting sense, the FEL’s ability to do that on a ship makes it much more attractive” than other laser technology.

The scope of the project from start to finish is impressively daunting. It's outfitted with enough piping, conductors, cables and other material to fill a small gymnasium, and they do this all at the lab. 

The Navy must not only figure out a way to harness the electron beam into a light ray, but to shrink the accelerator down to size so that it would fit neatly on a Navy destroyer.

But for now, researchers take each milestone as proof they are moving in the right direction. The Navy has asked for $60 million for its directed energy budget for 2012. As for Friday’s 500 kV breakthrough, they say it’s a big one. 

“This will shorten the timeline for the Navy to get to the Megawatt” league, Saulter said. Clearly, the day's events were a feather in everyone’s cap.