Lasers can map planets, lower steel, play your previous CDs, zap tattoos, and ship cats into furry frenzies of clickbait. However Robert Afzal, who leads Lockheed Martin’s superior laser methods program, needs them to do extra. He needs them to shoot stuff. Actually large stuff. From the time scientists found out within the 1960s that they might wield these intense beams of sunshine as instruments, the U.S. navy has needed one that may blast enemy missiles from the sky or fry a gap in a battle tank. “It’s 2018, and everybody’s questioning why we don’t have this expertise but,” Afzal says.
Because of him and his workforce, we now do. Early final 12 months, they delivered probably the most highly effective laser weapon on the planet to the U.S. Military. It’s a 60-kilowatt-class blaster whose focusing on dome, laser generator, and energy and management might be mounted on a truck and despatched into battle.
So why did it take so lengthy? As a result of it’s actually troublesome. Ever since researchers started pondering the real-world potential of those science-fiction staples, three issues have stymied them: the necessity for large solid-state batteries or large tubs of chemical substances to function the lasers, meeting dimensions extra akin to 747s than nimble battlefield automobiles, and the thorny drawback of sunshine diffusion—the beam’s capability to retain its depth between supply and goal.
“Beam high quality is a good problem,” Afzal says. “If you happen to don’t have good high quality, it’s like a Hollywood highlight—very shiny, however you don’t blow something up.”
Earlier than coaching his laser deal with blasting stuff, Afzal aimed it at a much more pacific pursuit: interplanetary exploration. He spent a lot of his profession, from 1992 to 2001, at NASA’s Goddard House Flight Heart, the place he led the event and integration of lasers into area probes, such because the Mars International Surveyor. In 2008, Lockheed acquired Afzal’s then-employer, Aculight Company, and Afzal started making use of his know-how towards Lockheed’s weapons program.
From the beginning, the problem in weaponizing mild was jacking up the laser’s horsepower to ranges that might soften steel at a significant distance—going from, say, the 1,000 watts you’d discover in an industrial reducing software to between 30 kilowatts and 100 kilowatts or extra for a weapons-grade mannequin. Chemical lasers might obtain such efficiency, however they required unwieldy mixtures to generate the beam. Whereas electrically powered solid-state lasers didn’t have that disadvantage, additionally they didn’t have the facility—initially. Afzal discovered inspiration within the telecommunications business.
Engineers there had realized that fiber-optic cables, that are nice for transmitting information through lasers, might additionally increase the sunshine beam’s power. Going additional, Afzal discovered that by bundling a number of fiber-optic-enhanced lasers, he might generate sufficient juice—with high-enough beam high quality—to toast enemy from so far as a mile away. Thus was born the “beam mixed fiber laser,” a scalable system that laser engineers can dial in to supply quite a lot of powers.
As a result of the laser is electrical, it’s environment friendly. It has a limiteless journal, and its capabilities will solely enhance as researchers are in a position to squeeze extra from methods throughout the spectrum. So, in principle, it’d sometime result in sci-fi’s elusive Holy Grail: the hand held laser blaster. On that, Afzal is understandably cagey however nonetheless optimistic. “As methods get smaller and extra environment friendly, and battery expertise will get higher, one would count on you can someday have a handheld system,” he permits.
Sure, a phaser! It’s coming!
This text was initially printed within the January/February 2018 Power situation of Fashionable Science.