The Defence Strategy Review released earlier in 2023 states that the threats Australia faces in the Indo-Pacific region include economic, military and climate change.
It is noteworthy then, that after decades of patient investment in research, Australia has developed world-class capability in a technology that can mitigate risk in all three areas.
Ultra-Short Pulse Laser (USPL) technology has delivered laboratory-scale demonstrations of many technologies with the capacity to redefine 21st century. Its key applications are in ‘military’ and ‘climate change’ with their industrialisation presenting significant ‘economic’ opportunities.
By leveraging this existing knowledge and growing the capabilities, Australia has an opportunity to develop key USPL technologies that could mitigate threats and deliver a new sovereign industry.
USPL has already underpinned arguably the biggest scientific result of the century: the US National Ignition Facility’s achievement of fusion net energy gain via inertial confinement.
The US, UK and Japan each have fusion energy strategies looking for global partners to answer scientific and economic viability questions, of which the maturity of USPL laser technology is key.
For military, the core technologies of USPL laser sources have distinct advantages over the more mature continuous wave laser sources available today and used as part of Directed Energy Laser weapons.
The USPL laser sources are well suited for long range applications due to their unique ability to propagate through air, and potentially they offer the ultimate solution to some of the key defence applications, as the Defence Strategic Review found.
The University of Adelaide established its DualTech USPL program to bring together the Centre for Advanced Defence Research in Ultrashort and Short Pulsed Lasers (CADR-USPL), Countermeasures & Hypersonic Defence Trailblazer (sovereign capability) program, industry and international partners.
The DualTech-USPL program ensures that game-changing ideas are developed into disruptive capabilities that can provide our economy and Australian Defence Force with an asymmetric advantage. At the same time, this technological advantage can also contribute to reducing carbon emissions via fusion energy.
Overall, USPL’s ongoing research and development is well-suited to AUKUS objectives. The DualTech-USPL program is strategically relevant to building local industry partnerships through the Defence Trailblazer program, and with our international allies to deter any adversaries.
The program aims to grow the nation’s economy and boost its diversity, create innovations for sustainability and clean energy solutions, build future workforce and talent base in diverse complex technologies and address the key defence needs for national security.
The vision thing
The vision for the DualTech-USPL program is to be a global research, development and industrialisation hub, which would include an internationally unique demonstration facility for ultra-short and short-pulsed lasers for the scientific community, Defence and to wider industry.
Australian meaning of USPL: Ultrashort (femtosecond, picosecond) and Short (nanosecond) Pulsed Lasers (USPL) in the high-energy pulse regime provides unique opportunity to exploit material interaction that are not otherwise accessible.
USPL Offers Limitless Scientific Opportunities: USPL is a new generation of laser technology being used as a frontline tool for scientific breakthroughs, in defence, medicine and industry platforms.
DualTech – USPL focuses on seven domains that have academic, defence, scientific and commercial value:
- Ultra-fast chemistry
- Material processing
- Higher harmonic generation and soft-x rays
- Remote sensing/space-based applications
- High Energy Density (HED) Physics
Defence applications include directed-energy and countermeasures against current and next-generation threats. A key part of what USPL delivers is its unique capability in long range detection with high precision engagement over long distances. This is not widely possible with other technologies that enable space-based applications.
The directed energy applications take advantage of the nonlinear effects achievable with high intensities and high repetition rate USPL sources. These effects enable the ability of the laser light to propagate over long distances with minimised divergence, distortions from turbulence and thermal blooming.
Our work program is well aligned with NATO and other key allies.
The fast interaction between highly energetic pulses and materials and matter can reveal and produce details of complex structures. These ultrafast energetic pulses are 100 trillion times brighter than sunlight.
When shining onto a material, these bursts create extremely high temperature and pressure that can only be found at explosion of thousands of tons of TNT or a small nuclear bomb, turning the material into the fourth state of matter ‘plasma’. Importantly, these bursts are extremely short in duration for which the temperature increase does not have sufficient time to spread the plasma, or to thermally damage the target.
The extremely high peak power of ultrashort pulses can ionise materials and create highly conducting plasmas.
Consequently, USPLs are quickly becoming the backbone of advanced materials processing for plastics, glasses and ceramics as the pulses produce very clean cuts and sharp edges with minimal surface contamination, yielding very significant quality and cost improvements compared to conventional methods.
Higher harmonic generation and soft x-rays
High energy, ultra-short duration mid-InfraRed (IR) pulses can also be used to produce synchronous, coherent, attosecond-duration extreme-ultraviolet (XUV) and soft-X-ray pulses via high-harmonic generation (HHG).
HHG has a maximum photon energy (further into soft x-ray regime) that increases as wavelength increases. The mid-range laser wavelengths are unique as the previous proportionality is counterbalanced by a soft x-ray yield term that is inversely proportional to the laser wavelength. The lasing wavelengths that are used are not too short as to have too low ponderomotive energy, but also not too long as to have too few soft x-ray photons generated.
Energetic ultra-short duration pulses of mid-IR photons are thus much better at producing X-rays with energies in the “water window”, where water is nearly transparent. This region of the spectrum also features K-absorption edges of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen – the building blocks of life.
Remote sensing and biomedical
USPL mid-infrared pulsed lasers are also of intense technical and scientific interest as many molecules absorb light in this region due to molecular vibrational absorptions
Consequently, very distinct ‘molecular fingerprints’ exist that can be exploited for sensing of trace gases in the atmosphere and for tissue ablation in minimally invasive surgery. These applications require high-energy pulsed broadband and tuneable narrowband mid-IR sources.
Wavelength, linewidth, power, polarisation, temporal, and spatial beam profiles are all important control parameters for use of USPL sources in quantum technologies.
The breakthrough by the National Ignition Laboratory in the US was described as a ‘historic, first-of-its kind achievement’ by the US Department of Energy due to its potential for use for clean energy towards zero carbon emission, as well as nuclear-weapons.
Our capability and global market profile
Australia has a critical mass of scientific expertise in the broader field of lasers and photonics that has already delivered to Australia an industry contributing billions annually to GDP from a range of technologies, including the high-speed optical data communications that powers the internet.
The Australian and New Zealand photonics (and related technologies) industry delivers $5.4 billion annually to the economy, thanks to innovations from our research sector.
The photonics market saw a revolution with optics and sensors, and an emergence into the defence sector.
At the end of 2020, the market was worth hundreds of billions. Moreover, a revolution in design and laser concepts with ultrashort short and pulses has seen a new frontier of advancement, underpinning new scientific discoveries.
The scope of USPL applications is expanding rapidly and now requires a new generation of pulse laser technologies to enable them.
Indeed, with laser fusion on the horizon, it is fair to predict that the 21st century will be the ‘USPL century.’ The impact of this will mirror the rapid technology growth in the 20th century due to the development of solid-state electronics.
In comparison to Continuous Wave (CW) lasers, which are currently used in military and industry applications, the current and future USPL technologies provide more bespoke and tailored systems.
Australia has the opportunity to stake a claim for a new industry fulfilling demand for scaled, advanced manufacturing of purpose-built USPL systems and components. It has the opportunity to be a global powerhouse in the industry.
The future for DualTech-USPL laser industry
Ultra-short and Short Pulsed Laser (USPL) technology is a critical defence technology with dual use applications forming the essential core for industry and academia for defence outcomes.
Establishing a USPL Manufacturing Hub would convene a diverse and aligned community to build a wide range of evolving technologies, applications, new ventures, and consortia in the critical energy, manufacturing, and defence sectors.
A great example to illustrate this unique technology and its applications is the fact that a decade ago when power scaling of the continuous wave (CW) lasers reached 20-30 kW the industry stopped further development, as there was no industry applications and no market for a 30 kW laser.
Hence, the defence budgets were left alone to deal with pushing R&D towards 100 kW or more.
USPL laser source development, on the other hand, has a more distinct and definite future. Significant EU funding for Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI) projects have been granted, and in there has been a increasing demand for these technologies.
There are several international programs that aim to expedite these technologies for clean energy and for defence, such as the US Department of Energy’s public-private partnerships to advance fusion energy.
Current push for Australian eco-system
The DualTech-USPL Program brings together the Centre for Advanced Defence Research in Ultrashort and Short Pulsed Lasers (CADR-USPL) and the Countermeasures & Hypersonic Defence Trailblazer program.
DualTech-USPL is the flagship of the recent Memorandum of Understanding for a new collaborative partnership between academic institutions and industry in Australia, France and Japan to develop a world-class, sovereign high-power laser industry.
The partnership would underpin a sovereign manufacturing industry in Australia in Ultrashort and Short Pulse Petawatt-class lasers, with a wide range of applications and benefits including fusion energy, medical imaging, advanced sensing, industry and defence.
Current collaborative engagement More, together DualTech-USPL capability
DualTech-USPL mission and objectives
Our mission is to create a sovereign USPL industrial and science capability in Australia to address our national needs under the DualTech-USPL strategy.
The centrepiece will be a large-scale multi-billion-dollar Laser Facility based at the University of Adelaide in joint effort with Industry and Defence Trailblazer to deliver leading edge research domestically and internationally.
DualTech-USPL technology five point plan
- Strategic research towards dual-use applications
- Deliver short and ultra-short pulse laser technologies for defence applications
- Support application of dual-use laser technology by science, health and industry
- Collaborate with leading research centres, Defence agencies and industries
- Educate the next generation of scientists, engineers, and technologists
Educate the next generation: There is a world-wide shortage of scientists with expertise in next-generation photonics and its applications. This is the greatest threat to the realisation of the photonics’ potential and its commercialisation in Australia.
The work of the Australian USPL team has been focused on making lab-scale breakthroughs in the field. The major barrier to growth has been its capacity and availability of skilled workforce.
The education of highly qualified scientists, engineers and technologists at post-graduate and post-doctoral levels will be a core DualTech-USPL objective. We shall also increase industry partner engagement in the research, providing opportunities for up-skilling of their current staff.
How we deliver dual-use solutions: Through the development of Dual-Use-USPL research, requiring investment in facilities, lab equipment, toolmaker and workshops. The synergy in the laser sources for Defence and non-Defence applications is driven by industry applications.
Defence cannot afford alone to support Defence S&T developing into a viable Defence product unless it shares the cost burden with a large commercial market. Thus, having the DualTech ecosystem ensures Defence benefits from commercial opportunities.
Professor Miftar Ganija holds a joint appointment at the University of Adelaide (School of Physical Sciences and School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering – EME) and Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG). He also leads the DualTech-USPL Group, pioneering Ultrashort Short Pulsed Laser technology for defence, fusion energy, medical and industrial applications.
Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.