The European Commission has approved plans to build a trio of lasers that will each dwarf the power of existing lasers, the website Czechposition reports. The project, called the Extreme Light Infrastructure, will lay the groundwork for building an even more powerful laser that could try to pull “virtual” particles out of the vacuum of space-time.
The three new lasers – one each in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Romania – are set to be completed by 2015. Each will fire pulses that reach a power of 10 petawatts (1016 watts) – the equivalent of several hundred times the power used by human civilisation.
The pulses will last only about 1.5 x 10-14 seconds, less than a tenth the time it takes light to cross the diameter of a human hair. Because the pulses are so short, they contain orders of magnitude less energy than the laser pulses at the National Ignition Facility in California, which last 2.0 x 10-8 seconds. But during that flickering instant, the Extreme Light Infrastructure pulses will deliver 20 times the power of NIF’s.
Each laser will cost about US$400 million, reports Laser Focus World. Design details will differ, so each will perform different high-energy physics experiments, including accelerating particles using the laser pulses, studying atomic nuclei and generating even more fleeting pulses to study the dynamics of extremely fast events in atoms.
If all goes well, a fourth laser will follow – containing 10 beams. Each beam will boast twice the power of one of the three lasers, for a total of 200 petawatts. Project coordinator Gerard Mourou, director of the Institute for Extreme Light in France, hopes that system could eventually reach intensities that might be able to make “virtual” particles real.
As New Scientist has reported:
Next-generation lasers will have the power to create matter by capturing ghostly particles that, according to quantum mechanics, permeate seemingly empty space.
The uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics implies that space can never be truly empty. Instead, random fluctuations give birth to a seething cauldron of particles, such as electrons, and their antimatter counterparts, called positrons.
These so-called “virtual particles” normally annihilate one another too quickly for us to notice them. But physicists predicted in the 1930s that a very strong electric field would transform virtual particles into real ones that we can observe. The field pushes them in opposite directions because they have opposite electric charges, separating them so that they cannot destroy one another. Lasers are ideally suited to this task because their light boasts strong electric fields.