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The invention provides a method and apparatus for generating large amplitude nonlinear plasma waves, driven by an optimized train of independently adjustable, intense laser pulses. In the method, optimal pulse widths, interpulse spacing, and intensity profiles of each pulse are determined for each pulse in a series of pulses. A resonant region of the plasma wave phase space is found where the plasma wave is driven most efficiently by the laser pulses. The accelerator system of the invention comprises several parts: the laser system, also called beam source, which preferably comprises photo cathode electron source and RF-LINAC accelerator; electron photo-cathode triggering system; the electron diagnostics; and the feedback system between the electron diagnostics and the laser system. The system also includes plasma source including vacuum chamber, magnetic lens, and magnetic field means. The laser system produces a train of pulses that has been optimized to maximize the axial electric field amplitude of the plasma wave, and thus the electron acceleration, using the method of the invention.