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The Navy has lots of plans for the “Holy Grail” of energy weapons, from burning enemy missiles out of the sky to helping aim a ship’s traditional guns. But the Navy has a more expansive use in mind for its Free Electron Laser: find the basic power source of the universe.

Oliver K. Baker is a 51 year-old Yale particle physicist. Every few months, he leaves tweedy New Haven for the Jefferson Lab in Newport News, Virginia, where he powers up the Navy’s Free Electron Laser, a laser the size of a schoolbus that uses supercharged electron streams to generate photons in one of a multitude of wavelengths. He fires the resultant beam of light into a tube containing a vacuum  — all in the hope of finding trace elements of so-called “dark energy,” the stuff God uses to heat His celestial home. (Well, maybe, kinda sorta.) Far off as Baker’s research may be from hitting paydirt, the Office of Naval Research, which runs a $163 million project to turn the laser into a death ray, writes the checks that make it possible.

Dark energy is purely theoretical, for the time being: no one’s actually discovered it. But physicists figure that since the universe is accelerating as it expands outward from its Big Bang origins, something must be powering that expansion. Finding the cosmic energy source is a proposition that intrigues the Navy, considering how epochal its discovery and harnessing would be for humanity.

“If proven correctly through quantum mechanics,” explains Quentin Saulter, the Office of Naval Research’s program manager for the Free Electron Laser, dark energy “would comprise the majority of the energy in our universe. The majority of energy in our universe. And we don’t use it.”

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Category: Science