The rise in high-intensity laser research in Europe has been ‘stunning, coordinated, and rapid’ over the last 20 years

In the 1990s, the US was the leading innovator and major user of high-intensity laser technology. But Europe and Asia are now dominating this sector after developing coordinated national and regional research and infrastructure.

The growth of high-intensity laser research in Europe and Asia has been ‘stunning, coordinated, and rapid’ over the last two decades while the US has lost its previous dominance in this field, according to new analysis by an expert panel of the US National Academies released earlier this month.

The report found a well-integrated research and engineering community has developed in Europe around petawatt (PW) lasers, which deliver nearly 100 times the total world’s power concentrated into a pulse that lasts less than one-trillionth of a second.

According to the report, 80 to 90% of the world’s high-intensity laser systems are now outside of the US, and none of the highest power multi-PW research lasers currently under construction are being built in the US. They also note that Laserlab-Europe, a confederation of 33 research organisations across 16 countries, ‘had a great influence on science policy’ and created the conditions necessary to establish the Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI) project in 2009.

The ELI programme, which is currently constructing a series of PW lasers at facilities in eastern Europe, aims toward an exawatt (1018 watts) laser that can achieve intensities of up to 1025 watts per square centimetre. Its three sites are located in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Romania. EU and member states have committed $1 billion (£748 million) over the next ten years to this project.

They are increasing the power of lasers and shortening the pulses…people are thinking of applications in medicine, manufacturing and science

Peter Tindemans, EuroScience

The Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania are all beneficiaries of the European structural and investment funds (ESIF), which are jointly managed by the European Commission and EU member countries, and aim to reduce regional disparities in income, wealth and opportunities. Roughly 85% of the expenses associated with these new laser facilities have been, or will be, financed by the ESIF, with about 15% coming from the governments of the three host countries.

The National Academies report suggests is only in the last two years that the US has been superseded by Asia and Europe in terms of the number of operational PW-class laser systems. There has been a rapid increase in the number of systems under construction in those two regions, while the US has remained level since 2012. Now, North America is ‘notably behind,’ the report says. Even including systems that are only proposed, North America has 9 PW-class systems either operational, under construction, or planned, while Asia has 12, and Europe has 32.

‘I am not sure whether this was really an intentional plan in Europe,’ says Peter Tindemans from the non-profit organisation EuroScience. He says the field’s emphasis in the US has been on laser-based inertial fusion, but in Europe laser facilities are more interdisciplinary and include physicists, biologists, chemists and others.

‘This has triggered a lot of scientists in Europe to think outside of the box and come up with innovative proposals,’ Tindemans says. ‘They are increasing the power of lasers, and they are also shortening the pulses in order to get much sharper resolution and study things like the processes within atoms,’ he adds. ‘It is really straightforward evolution – people are thinking of applications in medicine, manufacturing and science.’