Lasers Blowing Up

There's a bit of a magic number, when it comes to lasers. A threshold at which beams of coherent light stop being tools for welding or analysis... and start becoming weapons. That level is generally considered to be around 100 kilowatts.sshcl_hole.JPGFor years, solid state, electric lasers could only operate at a tiny fraction of that 100 kw mark. But the beams are getting stronger. Take Bob Yamamoto's Solid State Heat Capacity Laser, at Lawrence Livermore National Lab. In March, 2005, it hit 45 kw, a new record -- and more than triple what it could do just three years before.Now, in a new pair of papers provided to Defense Tech, Yamamoto reveals that his laser has hit 67 kw of average power during short bursts -- a 50% jump in a little more than a year. In other words, a battlefield-strength laser is just about in reach. The Livermore crew has even started designing a "gatling-gun"-style prototype, that uses clear, garnet slabs instead of bullets for ammunition.(There are still a bunch of other hurdles to jump to get to a laser weapon -- like generating enough electricity to make it work, and cooling the thing down. But beam strength is one of the tallest obstacles.)Yamamoto's team isn't the only one trying to put together a military-ready machine. Textron Systems and Northrop Grumman beat the Livermore crew out for $90 million worth of Defense Department grant money to build a 100 kilowatt laser by 2009. And these systems won't just be stronger than today's lasers. They'll be more compact, too -- maybe even ready for a prototype weapon.

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