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The Light Fantastic

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The Light Fantastic

Physicists in China and elsewhere are vying to build lasers so powerful they could rip apart empty space


5 min read
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A new generation of extremely high-powered lasers could “break the vacuum.”

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New lasers have arrived which can exert power at the level of petawatts (PW) – millions of a billion watts. All power grids combined achieve only hundredths of that power. To yield such immense power, however, the pulses produced by these table-top lasers need to be very short. Physicists now attempt durations as short as femtoseconds – millionths of a billionth of a second. Edwin Cartlidge paints a fascinating picture of the development of lasers, the challenges in reaching PW levels, and the ways forward to ever more capable lasers that will open up new possibilities in scientific research and medicine.


Scientists in China, Europe and Japan are constructing ever more powerful lasers.

In 2016, physicist Ruxin Li and his colleagues created a record-breaking 5.3 petawatt (5.3 × 1015 or 5.3 times a million times a billion watt) laser pulse with the Shanghai Superintense Ultrafast Laser Facility (SULF). Now his group is designing the Station of Extreme Light (SEL), a 100 PW laser, which they expect to become operational in 2023. Japanese researchers are proposing a 30 PW facility, while Europe’s Extreme Light Infrastructure will expand through the addition of 10 PW lasers in Romania and the Czech Republic. At the Exawatt ...

About the Author

Edwin Cartlidge is a freelance science journalist based in Rome.

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