Researchers in China are currently building a laser that can "rip apart empty space," which sounds as dangerous as it is powerful.
Chinese physicists have been enamored with laser technology, including work on laser-based weapons and, recently, a plan to clean up space junk by blasting the debris with lasers. The new laser technology that is currently being developed, however, will likely change the landscape of physics once it is completed.
Shanghai Superintense Ultrafast Laser Facility
In the Shanghai Superintense Ultrafast Laser Facility, researchers led by physicist Ruxin Li are breaking records by creating the world's most powerful light pulses.
At the heart of the facility is a single cylinder of titanium-doped sapphire that is just about as wide as a Frisbee. After the physicists kindle light in the crystal and push it through a system of mirror and lenses, the laser achieves immense power. In 2016, SULF achieved a laser of 5.3 petawatts, though the pulse only lasts for less than a trillionth of a second.
The researchers are now planning to upgrade the SULF and achieve a laser of 10 petawatts, which is equivalent to 1,000 times the power generated by all the electric grids in the world combined. However, the group's ambitions go beyond that.
China's Station of Extreme Light
The next phase in the work of Li and her colleagues is the Station of Extreme Light, a 100-petawatt laser targeted to be operational by 2023 that is the one that will "rip apart empty space."
The SEL laser will be able to target very precise spots that measure just three micrometers in width, which is 2,000 times less the thickness of a standard pencil. With that much power at such a small target, the laser will achieve an intensity that is 10 trillion times greater than the sunlight hitting the Earth.
The researchers expect the SEL laser to have applications for astrophysicists, as it may create astrophysical-like conditions of extreme pressure and temperature. The laser may also be useful in accelerating particles, which will help in medical and high-energy physics research.
However, one of the most exciting prospects for the SEL laser is the generation of "something from nothing," according to Li. The laser may be able to "break the vacuum," which is when it has enough energy to create electrons and positrons from empty space, based on the famous E=mc2 equation by Albert Einstein that suggests the interchangeability of mass and energy.
It remains to be seen whether the Station of Extreme Light will be up and running by 2023, but the prospective applications of the laser are very exciting indeed.