Extreme Light Laboratory

Part of the laser in the Extreme Light Laboratory located in the Belhen Laboratory building on Nov. 5, 2020, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The Extreme Light Laboratory, while unknown to most, is home to one of the most powerful lasers in the U.S. 

This lab, located in the basement of Behlen Laboratory next to Memorial Stadium at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, houses the Diocles laser. 

The Diocles laser is being used in areas such as medicine and the military, according to Donald Umstadter, a Leland and Dorothy Olson professor of physics and director of the Extreme Light Laboratory. 

“We are using that laser to develop new types of electron accelerators that are used to make x-rays, and those x-rays have some unique properties that are useful for many applications in both defense and security, medicine and industry,” Umstadter said. 

The 5,000 square-foot laboratory is built to the highest technical specifications, according to its website. The lab is set to 70 degrees at all times, it is vibration-isolated from the rest of the building to protect the laser and there are no particles in the lab that can damage the laser.  

All faculty and guests who enter the lab must wear a lab coat, hair net, shoe covers and protective goggles. Before entering the lab, there is a small room that people stand in that blows strong air to remove any outside particles before entering. 

The lab is on the smaller side compared to bigger facilities across the country, according to Junzhi Wang, a graduate student and research assistant, but that does not mean that the university's lab is lacking. 

“Even though it’s nothing compared to the national labs, this is still a big lab and it has a lot of things going on here,” Wang said. “It’s not only the laser. There's also electronics. There’s also mechanics. And with all those things, we need people to keep them running and to maintain them, so we are always welcoming students to join us.”

Recently, the U.S. Department of Energy committed $18 million to continue LaserNetUS, a network of laser labs across the country, including the Extreme Light Laboratory. 

“That enables us to be able to upgrade our laser so that we can provide the best parameters and the highest quality laser light and be competitive with laboratories around the world,” Umstadter said. “There are only a handful of them that are capable of producing the extreme conditions that we’re able to produce with our laser and this funding will keep us competitive with the best lasers found anywhere.”

The lab is also working with the University of Nebraska Medical Center for research on a new type of treatment for retinal diseases, Wang said. 

In addition to working with UNMC, the lab also works with agencies such as the Air Force and others researching similar topics. 

Wang also notes that while Nebraska is known for their football and other areas of study, he hopes that people will also know Nebraska for its work with lasers. 

“The Extreme Light Laboratory brings students to a new frontier in scientific research, while at the same time, brings this frontier to Nebraska,” Wang said.