Scientists at Los Alamos National Lab have built a key component to battlefield lasers that could arm U.S. navy ships by the end of the decade.

As part of the Office of Naval Research's Free Electron Laser (FEL) program, the scientists demonstrated a device, called an injector that produces the electrons needed to generate megawatt-class laser beams.

In a free electron laser, electrons are accelerated to high speeds through an array of magnets, called an undulator. The magnets wiggle the electrons so fast that they produce laser light pulses. Two big problems in building such lasers have been getting the electrons into the system and maintaining the power levels to produce lasers with power levels necessary to destroy targets.

One advantage of FELs is that they are tunable - the power and frequency can both be adjusted. This allows for changing the laser to fit different situations.

Quentin Saulter, FEL program manager for ONR, said in a statement that the research is necessary for the Department of the Navy to one day deploy the megawatt-class FEL weapon system. The FEL is expected to provide future U.S. Naval forces with a near-instantaneous laser ship defense in any maritime environment throughout the world, he said.

ONR's FEL project began as a basic science and technology program in the 1980s and matured into a working 14-kilowatt prototype. ONR hopes to test the FEL in a maritime environment as early as 2018.