Superpowered Chinese Lasers Could Soon Rip Open Raw Vacuum

August 6, 2018

Physicists are closing in on building a laser powerful enough to rip matter from a vacuum.

According to a report published Jan. 24 in the journal Science, a team of Chinese scientists is preparing to begin building a 100-megawatt laser, dubbed the Aurora Station or SEL, in Shanghai this year. This puts them ahead of the many scientists around the world who are working to fulfill a prediction published in 2010 by a team of American and French physicists in the journal Physical Review Express that a sufficiently powerful laser could cause electrons to emerge from a vacuum.

It seems odd to imagine that electrons could emerge from empty space. But it makes much more sense in light of a strange claim from quantum electrodynamics: “empty” space is not empty at all, but is made up of densely packed pairs of matter and antimatter. Quantum electrodynamics points out that these pairs tightly fill the gaps between everything – they just don’t interact with the rest of the universe in any significant way, because they cancel each other out.

So it’s easier to consider that the Chinese laser won’t create matter, but rather cause it to enter the world as humans can perceive it. Its powerful pulses of energy would cause electrons to separate from their antimatter twin positrons, which researchers could detect in this way.

However, creating a laser powerful enough to do this is a difficult (and expensive) technical challenge. As Science magazine reports, one hundred petawatts of energy is 10,000 times the energy of all the world’s power grids combined.

A smaller Chinese laser, the Shanghai Ultrafast Laser Facility, could reach 10 petawatts by the end of this year. (That’s 1,000 times the power of all the world’s power grids.) So how can lasers reach these enormous power levels?

As the authors of a report in Science explain, power is a function of two things: energy and time. To release one joule of energy in one second, that’s one watt. To release one joule of energy in one hour, that’s only 0.28 milliwatts (280,000ths of a watt). But release that joule in just a millionth of a second, and that’s 1 million watts, or 1 megawatt.

According to the Science article, all super lasers rely in some way on releasing large amounts of energy in a short period of time, amplifying it and bending the beam so that all the energy reaches its target in a much shorter time, according to the Science magazine article.

According to Science, by 2023, SEL could hit targets as small as 3 microns (millionths of a meter, or the width of E. coli) in diameter with 100 petawatts of power.