A team of theoretical physicists from the United Kingdom have developed a new laser technology capable of heating materials at temperatures hotter than that of the center of the sun in under a fraction of a second.

Dr. Arthur Turrell and his colleagues at the Imperial College London have devised a breakthrough method of exposing objects to temperatures of up to 10 million degrees in only 20 quadrillionths of a second through the use of thermonuclear fusion energy.

"One of the problems with fusion research has been getting the energy from the laser in the right place at the right time," Turrell said.

"This method puts energy straight into the ions."

According to the Imperial researchers, the new heating method is around 100 times faster compared to current rates observed in fusion experiments using the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's (LLNL) high-power laser system.

The primary goal now is to find a way to put the newly developed technology into practice.

Directing Laser Energy

For years, scientists have tried to use powerful laser systems to expose materials to high temperatures in order to produce fusion energy. The study centers find different ways to heat up ions, or the particles that make up matter, directly.

When objects are exposed laser heating, the energy produced by the laser system first heats up the target's electrons. However, this process takes longer time to heat the ions compared to targeting the particles directly.

Turrell and his team found that when high-power laser systems are directed at a specific type of material, they will produce electrostatic shockwaves that can help heat up the ions right away.

Under normal circumstances, electrostatic shockwaves produced by laser energy would only serve to push particles away instead of heating them up. The Imperial researchers, however, made use of special ion combinations to accelerate the particles in materials at varying speeds.

This acceleration of particles resulted in friction between the ions, which then produced rapid heating.

Turrell and his team discovered that the effect would be most visible when used on solid materials that contain two types of ions, such as plastics.

Dr. Mark Sherlock, one of the co-authors of the study, explained that the two ions in these types of materials act much like matchsticks.

"A bunch of matches will never light on their own," Sherlock said. "You need the friction caused by striking them against the box."

The density of the material that the researchers used served as a primary factor in generating heat rapidly.

The ions of the object became 10 times denser compared to normal solid materials as the electrostatic shockwave passed through it. This caused the frictional effect to become much stronger than what would normally be seen in less-dense materials such as gases.

If the new technique is proven through experimentation, it could become the fastest rate of heating ever to be demonstrated in a laboratory setting using a considerable number of ions.

While faster rates of temperature changes have been observed through the smashing of atoms, such as the case with the Large Hadron Collider, Turrell said these types of collision occur between single pairs of particles only.

The new heating technique in contrast could be carried out in laser facilities in different parts of the world. It would also be able to heat up materials at solid density.

The findings of the Imperial College London study are featured [pdf] in the journal Nature Communications.

Photo: Thomas Bresson | Flickr 

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