Lasers Will Soon Be Powerful Enough to Tear Through Empty Space
Some technological innovations are so absurdly futuristic that they make it seem as if we're getting ahead of ourselves. Such is the case with news that the aptly-named Shanghai Superintense Ultrafast Laser Facility, developed by physicist Ruxin Li at a lab in Shanghai China, is capable of producing the most powerful light pulses in existence.
The laser, a single cylinder of sapphire coated in titanium that's about the width of a Frisbee, distills light into pulses of previously unimaginable power—5.3 million billion watts, also known as petawatts.
As if that weren't impressive enough, researchers are on track to beat their own record this year with a 10 petawatt pulse, which is 1,000 times more powerful than all the world's electrical grids combined.
This year, the same lab also plans to start building a 100 petawatt laser they're calling the Station of Extreme Light, which sounds like a dungeon in a classic RPG. The hope for this SEL is that by 2023 it can send pulses of light that subject targets to levels of temperatures and pressures seldom occuring on Earth. In addition to providing valuable insights to scientists, the laser could also act as a de-facto particle accelerator for the fields of medicine and physics.
Li also told Science Magazine that the SEL could show light breaking the vacuum—tearing through electrons and positrons from empty space. "It would be a striking illustration that matter and energy are interchangeable, as Albert Einstein's famous E=mc2 equation states," he said of the process, which has been accomplished by converting matter to light, but never light into matter. "That would be very exciting. It would mean you could generate something from nothing."
Last year we learned that the U.S. has built a $40 million laser weapon more precise than a bullet, initially designed to take out airborne drones. We also learned that Lockheed Martin won a costly contract to produce lasers for our tactical fighter jets, which will begin testing the tech in 2021. These lasers may not be able to split nothingness, but they're a start.
Nonetheless, a recent report suggests that the U.S. has fallen drastically behind in laser research and advancement.
"Currently, 80 percent to 90 percent of the high-intensity laser systems are overseas, and all of the highest power research lasers currently in construction or already built are overseas as well," says a statement announcing the findings. "The report makes five recommendations that would improve the nation's position in the field, including for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to create a broad network to support science, applications, and technology of these lasers, as well as for DOE to plan for at least one large-scale, open-access high-intensity laser facility that leverages other major science infrastructures in the DOE complex."