Massive 10-Petawatt Laser Can Vaporize Matter

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A laser one-tenth of the sun’s power on Earth officially debuted in March when researchers in Romania ran the first successful test at 10 petawatts (PW). The laser is one of three in an international project in Europe known as Extreme Light Infrastructure. To date, it is the most powerful laser ever built, and it’s the most concentrated power on the planet.

It’s hard to overstate the enormity of 10PW, which equates to 10 million billion watts. It was only a few years ago that this site referred to a mere 1PW laser as a Death Star. The new one is 10 times as strong. As a point of comparison, laser pointers sold in the US are limited to being at most 0.005-watt for safety.

Origins of a 10PW Laser

The laser in question is part of the Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI) project, an effort started by scientists in Europe in the mid-2000s and led by French scientist and Nobel Prize winner Gérard Mourou. The purpose of the project is to advance not only laser research infrastructure but also applied science.

The program was granted funding by the European Commission, and within a few years, three countries were chosen to become the homes to three new lasers: Romania, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. At present, the project has received more than 850 million euros, mostly from the European Regional Development Fund.

The 10PW laser lives in a newly built lab called Extreme Light Infrastructure – Nuclear Physics facility (ELI-NP) in a town called Măgurele, not far from the capital city Bucharest. ELI-NP is dedicated to the study of photonuclear physics and its applications. The two other labs are known as ELI-Beamlines in the Czech Republic, focused on short-pulse secondary sources of radiation and particles, and ELI-ALPS or Attosecond Light Pulse Source in Hungary.

ELI-NP lab. Credit: ELI

What Do You Do With a 10PW Laser?

With 10PW of power, scientists can literally vaporize matter, opening up possible new insights into what happens during a supernova. That’s just one example, albeit a rather epic one. That kind of power in a laser also makes it possible to study how heavy metals are formed.

In terms of more practical research, ELI-NP will be working on advancing medical research in proton cancer therapy as well as looking for new ways to handle radioactive waste. It could also help create new ways to find and characterize nuclear material, allowing security teams to scan, say, incoming shipping containers for hazardous and illegal contents. The official research phase of the project is slated to begin in early 2020.

The power of lasers has increased so much over the last few decades that “the laws of light-matter interaction change fundamentally due to the dominance of relativistic effects in the dynamics of charged particles under the influence of laser light,” according to ELI. From this fundamental change, scientists can develop new ways to generate x-rays, gamma-rays, and highly energetic particles. These new methods, in turn, open up novel ways of how they can be used across different scientific fields, whether in medical research or material sciences.

ELI-NP laser room. Credit: ELI-NP

What Does a 10PW Look Like?

As much as anyone would like to imagine a giant satellite dish shooting a beam from its center (ahem, Death Star), the reality of even a 10PW laser is a bit more mundane. The laser itself is inside a chamber, and the scientists running it are of course behind a computer.

In order for the laser to have both power and accuracy, it relies on two systems working together. One is called the High Power Laser System, which itself comprises two laser arms. They’re what deliver the laser pulses. The second piece is the Laser Beam Transport System, which directs the pulses where they need to go with micrometric accuracy. This second component isn’t a laser at all, but rather “meter-large aperture adjustable mirrors installed in a vacuum system of pipes and enclosures,” according to information from ELI-NP. The entire system requires an environment that’s highly controlled in air quality and vibration, so at the very least, picture a clean room, in the scientific sense.

If we could peek inside the protective chamber while the laser was running, the beam would be visible to the human eye and glowing red, although it’s toward the infrared radiation limit, according to Dr. Nicolae Zamfir, project director at ELI-NP. A high-energy pump laser would be visible to the eye, too, appearing green.

Dr. Zamfir also explained the size of the laser beam, about 60cm or a little less than two feet in diameter, and the area it can target: “The beam is focused on mm2 only in the interaction [chamber],” he added.

The Future of Laser Technology

If all goes as planned, the 10PW laser at ELI-NP will get even stronger. According to optics.org (as well as a job ad for an engineer at ELI-NP — a mere bachelor’s degree required), two 10PW lasers will combine together to “deliver focused laser intensities of up to 1023 watts per square centimeter, at a wavelength of 820 nanometers and pulse lengths of 25 femtoseconds.” The current strength is 1015.

In addition to the three sites in Romania, Hungary, and Czechia, ELI is planning a fourth facility and laser, with its location to be determined. That one is expected to be an order of magnitude stronger than the one in Romania.

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Top image credit: Getty Images

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