Chinese scientists are now working on a laser technology so powerful that it can rip through vacuum and “produce” matter.
Chinese physicist Ruxin Li and colleagues are already preparing to begin construction of a 100-petawatt laser known as the Station of Extreme Light, or SEL, this year in Shanghai based on the report published in the journal Science on Wednesday.
Predicted in 2010 by a team of American and French physicists, the idea of a super-powered laser could “produce” electrons out of a vacuum is currently being studied by scientists in different fields worldwide.
While making electrons appear out of empty space may sound silly at first, quantum electrodynamics posits that what we often refer to as “empty” space isn’t actually empty intrinsically as it is made up of pairs of matter and antimatter.
Quantum electrodynamics states that such densely packed pairs fill up the gaps we perceive as empty. Since matter and antimatter are believed to cancel each other out, their interactions are not observable as with the rest of the universe.
The Chinese laser will not be technically “creating” matter but rather make it appear in a “dimension” in which we can perceive it. The idea is to cause electrons to separate from positrons (their antimatter twins) by using extremely powerful energy pulses, enabling researchers to detect them.
According to the paper, the scientists need to build a machine capable of producing a hundred-petawatt laser to achieve this. This will definitely be a tough feat since that amount of power is about 10,000 times more energy than there is in all the world’s electrical grids combined, reports LiveScience.
It is important to note, however, their smaller Chinese laser called the Shanghai Superintense Ultrafast Laser Facility has already achieved an unprecedented 5.3 million billion watts, or 5.3 petawatts, in 2016. The laser is already expected to reach power levels as high as 10 petawatts (1,000 times the power of all the world’s grids) by the end of this year, and they are confident that it is not too far-fetched. It will just be very very expensive.
To achieve those high powerful levels, scientists explained that it is just a matter of amplifying available large amounts of energy by releasing them over a minuscule period of time. The report explained this by illustrating power being a function of both energy and time.
It stated that if a joule of energy is released over the course of 1 second, that would amount to 1 watt, but release it over the course of 1 hour, and it would just be 0.28 milliwatts (28 hundred-thousandths of a watt).
The researchers explained that to achieve 1 million watts (1 megawatt), all it takes is releasing that joule in just 1-millionth of a second.
According to Stanford University atomic physicist Philip Bucksbaum, the Chinese group is “definitely leading the way” to achieving 100 PW. He noted, however, that competition is fierce with other nations also researching similar technology.
As part of Europe’s Extreme Light Infrastructure, similar 10-PW devices should switch on in Romania and the Czech Republic, while Russian physicists have also been designing a 180-PW laser known as the Exawatt Center for Extreme Light Studies (XCELS). Japanese researchers have also made proposals for a 30-PW device.
A study published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine group last month noted how American scientists have reportedly fallen behind in such research. The study, chaired by Bucksbaum, has called upon the U.S. Department of Energy to plan for at least one high-power laser facility.