A weapon that travels at the speed of light; Nothing can outrun, out maneuver, or escape it. It is the Free Electron Laser Weapon System. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) is supporting the technology to build a working prototype by this year, 2012.
Last year, Scientists at the Jefferson Lab in Newport News, VA. used massive levels of power into a prototype accelerator that produced a supercharged electron beam that can burn through 20 feet of steel per second. This world record puts the US Navy one step closer from constructing a practical Free Electron Laser weapon system to be used on battleships.
A Free Electron Laser (FEL) provides naval platforms with a highly effective and affordable point defense capability against surface and air threats, future anti-ship cruise missiles or swarms of small boats. It can shoot cruise missiles from the sky with deadly accuracy. Utilization of FEL also allows an unlimited magazine with speed-of light delivery.
FEL generates high-intensity laser light by using energy from unbound and accelerated high energy electrons. This technology is commonly used in the Department of Energy’s particle colliders for basic subatomic research. The FEL program is an investment by the Office of Naval Research to transition the accelerator technology from particle colliders to a future ship self-defense weapon system.
Video: The Free Electron Laser Weapon System
To create incredible power requires incredible energy. The more power one puts into a laser accelerator, the more powerful and precise the light beam that is produced. In the Feb 2011 demonstration, scientists present, in coordination with the Office of Naval Research (ONR), achieved a world record by injecting a sustained 500 kilovolts (KV) of juice into a prototype accelerator where the existing limit had been 320 kilovolts (KV).
FEL will equip U.S. ships that have high depth-of-fire with speed-of-light delivery, seconds dwell time and a deep magazine for a more powerful means of self-defense. It is a revolutionary weapon that will transform how the Navy fights future battles.
An Innovative Naval Prototype program for the FEL technology began in 2010. It will demonstrate scalability of the necessary FEL physics and engineering for an eventual megawatt-class device. The program will focus on the design, development, fabrication, integration and test of a 100-kilowatt class FEL device. Future needs for ship integration and beam control are being considered.
Present laser technology uses crystals and chemicals to turn light into high energy beams. Solid state lasers use crystals while chemicals are used for chemical lasers. Both these versions are not versatile as they are restricted to a certain specific wavelengths. Free electron lasers, on the other hand, use a stream of supercharged electrons to power the laser at varying wavelengths.
The system could could also run off a vessel’s power source rather than requiring its own, so it wouldn’t need to stop and reload.
This versatility is why the Navy has referred to Free Electron Lasers as the Holy Grail of laser tech and why it has embarked on a $163 million quest to develop a working weapons system, $26 million of which is currently facilitating a development program at Boeing. According to Boeing, "This critical design review phase will be completed in the second quarter of 2012, and will be followed by additional task orders for fabrication and testing in a laboratory environment..."
Aside from being a powerful weapon, the Free Electron Laser can also be used for tracking, communications, target designation, disruption, time-of-flight location, and a variety of other tasks.
Office of Naval Research
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