A new laser-driven ion acceleration mechanism using ultrathin targets has been identified from particle-in-cell simulations. After a brief period of target normal sheath acceleration (TNSA) [S. P. Hatchett et al., Phys. Plasmas7, 2076 (2000)], two distinct stages follow: first, a period of enhanced TNSA during which the cold electron background converts entirely to hot electrons, and second, the “laser breakout afterburner” (BOA) when the laser penetrates to the rear of the target where a localized longitudinal electric field is generated with the location of the peak field co-moving with the ions. During this process, a relativistic electron beam is produced by the ponderomotive drive of the laser. This beam is unstable to a relativistic Buneman instability, which rapidly converts the electron energy into ion energy. This mechanism accelerates ions to much higher energies using laser intensities comparable to earlier TNSA experiments. At a laser intensity of 10 21 W ∕ cm 2 , the carbon ions accelerate as a quasimonoenergetic bunch to 100 s of MeV in the early stages of the BOA with conversion efficiency of order a few percent. Both are an order of magnitude higher than those realized from TNSA in recent experiments [Hegelich et al., Nature441, 439 (2006)]. The laser-plasma interaction then evolves to produce a quasithermal energy distribution with maximum energy of ∼ 2 GeV .
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