From The University of Michigan: “First light at the most powerful laser in the U.S.”

U Michigan bloc

From The University of Michigan

Kate McAlpine

The ZEUS laser at the University of Michigan has begun its commissioning experiments.

The ZEUS Laser – the most powerful laser in the U.S.
The ZEUS laser system will be the most powerful laser in the United States, located exclusively at the University of Michigan. Funded by the National Science Foundation, it will be a destination for researchers studying extreme plasmas around the U.S. and internationally.

The laser that will be the most powerful in the United States is preparing to send its first pulses into an experimental target at the University of Michigan.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, it will be a destination for researchers studying extreme plasmas around the U.S. and internationally.

Called ZEUS, the Zetawatt-Equivalent Ultrashort pulse laser System, it will explore the physics of the quantum universe as well as outer space, and it is expected to contribute to new technologies in medicine, electronics and national security.

“ZEUS will be the highest peak power laser in the U.S. and among the most powerful laser systems in the world. We’re looking forward to growing the research community and bringing in people with new ideas for experiments and applications,” said Karl Krushelnick, director of the Center for Ultrafast Optical Science, which houses ZEUS, and the Henry J. Gomberg Collegiate Professor of Engineering.

The first target area to get up and running is the high-repetition target area, which runs experiments with more frequent but lower power laser pulses. Michigan alum Franklin Dollar, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California-Irvine, is the first user, and his team is exploring a new kind of X-ray imaging.

They will use ZEUS to send infrared laser pulses into a gas target of helium, turning it into plasma. That plasma accelerates electrons to high energies, and those electron beams then wiggle to produce very compact X-ray pulses.

Dollar’s team investigates how to make and use these new kinds of X-ray sources. Because soft tissues absorb X-rays at very similar rates, basic medical X-ray machines have to deliver high doses of radiation before they can distinguish between a tumor and healthy tissue, he said.

But during his doctoral studies under Krushelnick, Dollar used ZEUS’s predecessor to image a damselfly, showing the promise of laser-like X-ray pulses. Different soft tissues within the damselfly’s carapace delayed X-rays to different degrees, creating interference patterns in the X-ray waves. Those patterns revealed the soft structures with very short X-ray pulses—a few millionths of a billionth of a second—and hence small X-ray doses.

“We could see every little organ as well as the tiny micro hairs on its leg,” Dollar said. “It’s very exciting to think of how we could use these laser-like X-rays to do low-dose imaging, taking advantage of the fact that they’re laser-like rather than having to rely on the absorption imaging of the past.”

In this first run, the ZEUS team is starting at a power of 30 terawatts (30 trillion watts), about 3% of the current most powerful lasers in the U.S. and 1% of ZEUS’s eventual maximum power.

“During the experiment here, we’ll put the first light through to the target chamber and develop towards that 300 terawatt level,” said John Nees, a research scientist in electrical and computer engineering.

Nees leads the building of the laser alongside Anatoly Maksimchuk, a research scientist in electrical and computer engineering, who leads the development of the experimental areas.

(From left) Laser engineer Lauren Weinberg, research scientist John Nees and research engineer Galina Kalinchenko pose for photos while working on the ZEUS laser at the NSF ZEUS laser facility in a Michigan Engineering lab. Image credit: Marcin Szczepanski, Michigan Engineering.

Dollar’s team plans to return late in the fall for another run, aiming for the full power intended for the high repetition target area, 500 terawatts. The maximum power of 3 petawatts, or quadrillion watts, will go to different target areas to be completed later. The first test using the target area for ZEUS’s signature experiment is anticipated in 2023.

That experiment will use the laser to generate a beam of high-speed electrons and then run the electrons directly into the laser pulses. For the electrons, that simulates a zetawatt laser pulse—a million times more powerful than ZEUS’s 3 petawatts. In addition to probing the foundations of our understanding of the quantum universe, ZEUS will enable researchers to study what’s going on inside some of the most extreme objects in space.

“Magnetars, which are neutron stars with extremely strong magnetic fields around them, and objects like active galactic nuclei surrounded by very hot plasma—we can recreate the microphysics of hot plasma in extremely strong fields in the laboratory,” said Louise Willingale, associate director of ZEUS and an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.

ZEUS offers not only scientific and technological opportunities, but with the discipline-wide effort to grow the laser physics workforce, it creates career opportunities as well. Dollar brought his whole team to get the hands-on experience of a commissioning experiment at a world-class laser.

“At Michigan Engineering, we’re fortunate to have some of the strongest academic and research capabilities in the world, and we’re leveraging that strength to improve the lives of real people. ZEUS exemplifies our commitment to fundamental science—using engineering to understand matter at its most basic levels and then using that knowledge to build solutions to real-world problems,” said Alec D. Gallimore, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering.

The first experiment milestone feels especially hard-earned because of the way the pandemic disrupted construction early on, when the team was still reconfiguring the building to accommodate a much larger laser. Project manager Franko Bayer reconsidered the schedules, identifying work that could be done in parallel rather than in sequence, to keep as close as possible to the initial timelines.

“Our team at ZEUS is very excited that our hard work paid off, and despite all the post-pandemic equipment delivery delays, we are on schedule to our original timeline. This experiment is the beginning to gradually ramp up the power until full commissioning in the fall of 2023,” Bayer said.

Krushelnick is also a professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences and electrical and computer engineering. Gallimore is also the Richard F. and Eleanor A. Towner Professor of Engineering, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and a professor of aerospace engineering.

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The University of Michigan is a public research university located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, United States. Originally, founded in 1817 in Detroit as the Catholepistemiad, or University of Michigania, 20 years before the Michigan Territory officially became a state, the University of Michigan is the state’s oldest university. The university moved to Ann Arbor in 1837 onto 40 acres (16 ha) of what is now known as Central Campus. Since its establishment in Ann Arbor, the university campus has expanded to include more than 584 major buildings with a combined area of more than 34 million gross square feet (781 acres or 3.16 km²), and has two satellite campuses located in Flint and Dearborn. The University was one of the founding members of the Association of American Universities.

Considered one of the foremost research universities in the United States, the university has very high research activity and its comprehensive graduate program offers doctoral degrees in the humanities, social sciences, and STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) as well as professional degrees in business, medicine, law, pharmacy, nursing, social work and dentistry. Michigan’s body of living alumni (as of 2012) comprises more than 500,000. Besides academic life, Michigan’s athletic teams compete in Division I of the NCAA and are collectively known as the Wolverines. They are members of the Big Ten Conference.

At over $12.4 billion in 2019, Michigan’s endowment is among the largest of any university. As of October 2019, 53 MacArthur “genius award” winners (29 alumni winners and 24 faculty winners), 26 Nobel Prize winners, six Turing Award winners, one Fields Medalist and one Mitchell Scholar have been affiliated with the university. Its alumni include eight heads of state or government, including President of the United States Gerald Ford; 38 cabinet-level officials; and 26 living billionaires. It also has many alumni who are Fulbright Scholars and MacArthur Fellows.


The University of Michigan is one of the founding members (in the year 1900) of the Association of American Universities. With over 6,200 faculty members, 73 of whom are members of the National Academy and 471 of whom hold an endowed chair in their discipline, the university manages one of the largest annual collegiate research budgets of any university in the United States. According to the National Science Foundation, The University of Michigan spent $1.6 billion on research and development in 2018, ranking it 2nd in the nation. This figure totaled over $1 billion in 2009. The Medical School spent the most at over $445 million, while the College of Engineering was second at more than $160 million. U-M also has a technology transfer office, which is the university conduit between laboratory research and corporate commercialization interests.

In 2009, The University of Michigan signed an agreement to purchase a facility formerly owned by Pfizer. The acquisition includes over 170 acres (0.69 km^2) of property, and 30 major buildings comprising roughly 1,600,000 square feet (150,000 m^2) of wet laboratory space, and 400,000 square feet (37,000 m^2) of administrative space. At the time of the agreement, The University of Michigan ‘s intentions for the space were not set, but the expectation was that the new space would allow the university to ramp up its research and ultimately employ in excess of 2,000 people.

The University of Michigan is also a major contributor to the medical field with the EKG and the gastroscope. The university’s 13,000-acre (53 km^2) biological station in the Northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan is one of only 47 Biosphere Reserves in the United States.

In the mid-1960s The University of Michigan researchers worked with IBM to develop a new virtual memory architectural model that became part of IBM’s Model 360/67 mainframe computer (the 360/67 was initially dubbed the 360/65M where the “M” stood for Michigan). The Michigan Terminal System (MTS), an early time-sharing computer operating system developed at U-M, was the first system outside of IBM to use the 360/67’s virtual memory features.

The University of Michigan is home to the National Election Studies and the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index. The Correlates of War project, also located at U-M, is an accumulation of scientific knowledge about war. The university is also home to major research centers in optics, reconfigurable manufacturing systems, wireless integrated microsystems, and social sciences. The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and the Life Sciences Institute are located at the university. The Institute for Social Research (ISR), the nation’s longest-standing laboratory for interdisciplinary research in the social sciences, is home to the Survey Research Center, Research Center for Group Dynamics, Center for Political Studies, Population Studies Center, and Inter-Consortium for Political and Social Research. Undergraduate students are able to participate in various research projects through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) as well as the UROP/Creative-Programs.

The The University of Michigan library system comprises nineteen individual libraries with twenty-four separate collections—roughly 13.3 million volumes. The University of Michigan was the original home of the JSTOR database, which contains about 750,000 digitized pages from the entire pre-1990 backfile of ten journals of history and economics, and has initiated a book digitization program in collaboration with Google. The University of Michigan Press is also a part of the The University of Michigan library system.

In the late 1960s The University of Michigan, together with Michigan State University and Wayne State University, founded the Merit Network, one of the first university computer networks. The Merit Network was then and remains today administratively hosted by The University of Michigan. Another major contribution took place in 1987 when a proposal submitted by the Merit Network together with its partners IBM, MCI, and the State of Michigan won a national competition to upgrade and expand the National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET) backbone from 56,000 to 1.5 million, and later to 45 million bits per second. In 2006, U-M joined with Michigan State University and Wayne State University to create the the University Research Corridor. This effort was undertaken to highlight the capabilities of the state’s three leading research institutions and drive the transformation of Michigan’s economy. The three universities are electronically interconnected via the Michigan LambdaRail (MiLR, pronounced ‘MY-lar’), a high-speed data network providing 10 Gbit/s connections between the three university campuses and other national and international network connection points in Chicago.