Yes, China is building a super laser; no it’s not going to kill us all

China has built one of the world’s most powerful lasers, but that’s just the beginning. The country plans to up its standard by creating a laser that’s 10,000 times as powerful as all of the world’s electrical grids combined by 2023. No, you’re not reading The Onion, nor is it a plot to an Austin Powers film, this is genuine research looking into the mysteries of our universe.

Yes, China is building a super laser; no it’s not going to kill us all

The current laser, with an output of 5.3-petawatts (a million billion watts), is called the Shanghai Superintense Ultrafast Laser Facility (SULF) and is just the first stage in ultra-fast, ultra-powerful lasers for China. By the end of the year, the researchers plan to create a laser capable of outputting double that, with a 10-PW blast. After that, a new laser set for 2023 will push out 100-PW laser pulses.

This “Station of Extreme Light” is planned to be so powerful it can “rip apart empty space”, but don’t worry yourself too much, it’s not as catastrophically bad as Fox News-like headlines make it sound.

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As detailed in the journal that published the original research, the new laser pulse, which Fox News describe as being “ten trillion times more intense than the Sun”, will only last for one trillionth of a second. This blast will be so short that it won’t sap all of the world’s power just to fire a laser, and it won’t suddenly blow the earth apart if it hits it. Instead, it’s designed to tear apart the vacuum of space so we can properly analyse what’s actually in that presumed void of space.

In theory, a very powerful laser like the one China is planning to build could tear into space and separate pairs of electrons and positrons from forming in the void, allowing scientists to peer inside and see what matter exists inside these vacuums. In practice, however, it’s far more economical to fire two lasers into one another inside a vacuum and study the results.

This doesn’t mean to say China’s Station of Extreme Light isn’t worth creating though. It could be used in experiments like CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, but taking up far less space.

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If you’re wondering just how the researchers in Shanghai managed to create a ten-petawatt laser, and plan to build a 100-PW one by 2023 without draining the world’s power grids, it all comes down to smart physics.

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The equation for creating power boils down to energy over time and so scientists can maximise power in two ways: either boost the energy of the laser, or shorten the time of its pulses. Previously, everyone has focused on improving the energy aspect of a laser but now, with that knowledge in hand, researchers are turning to shortening pulses to boost power output even further.

By utilising this technique, scientists and engineers can create ultra-powerful lasers that take up rooms instead of multi-storey buildings. China’s 10-PW laser fits onto a table in a room, and it’s likely its 100-PW laser won’t take up much more room either. Worth considering if you want a desk toy more advanced than the Newton’s Cradle, and have over £100 million burning a hole in your pocket.

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