Motivated by the development of next-generation heavy-ion sources, we have investigated the ionization and acceleration dynamics of an ultraintense laser-driven high-Z silver target, experimentally, numerically, and analytically. Using a novel ion measurement technique allowing us to uniquely identify silver ions, we experimentally demonstrate generation of highly charged silver ions (Z∗=45-2+2) with energies of >20 MeV/nucleon (>2.2 GeV) from submicron silver targets driven by a laser with intensity 5×1021W/cm2, with increasing ion energy and charge state for decreasing target thickness. We show that although target pre-expansion by the unavoidable rising edge of state-of-the-art high-power lasers can limit proton energies, it is advantageous for heavy-ion acceleration. Two-dimensional particle-in-cell simulations show that the Joule heating in the target bulk results in a high temperature (∼10keV) solid density plasma, leading to the generation of high flux highly charged ions (Z∗=40-2+2, â‰10MeV/nucleon) via electron collisional ionization, which are extracted and accelerated with a small divergence by an extreme sheath field at the target rear. However, with reduced target thickness this favorable acceleration is degraded due to the target deformation via laser hole boring, which accompanies higher energy ions with higher charge states but in an uncontrollable manner. Our elucidation of the fundamental processes of high-intensity laser-driven ionization and ion acceleration provides a path for improving the control and parameters of laser-driven heavy-ion sources, a key component for next-generation heavy-ion accelerators.
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