E = mc2: energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared. We’ve demonstrated this to dramatic effect with nuclear bombs, converting a little mass into a lot of energy, but we’ve never done it the other way around and turned energy into mass. At least we haven’t done it… yet. When you think high energy, where does your mind go? Probably lasers. And lasers are getting extremely powerful.
The current record-holding laser resides in China, at the Shanghai Superintense Ultrafast Laser Facility. In 2016 it set the bar at 5.3 million billion Watts of power, or 5.3 Petawatts. Even though that’s a lot of power, it doesn’t last very long. Power is energy over time, so there are two ways to make these super powerful lasers. Scientists can just up the energy, but certain components like the amplifiers can’t handle more energy unless they’re impractically large.
One laser in the US uses 1.8 megajoules to produce about one petawatt and it’s the size of a 10 story building. The other approach to upping the power is by packing that energy into a very short amount of time. The laser in Shanghai fires for just a few quadrillionths of a second. In that tiny timespan, the laser produces about 500 times the power of all the world’s electrical grids combined, while being small enough to fit on a tabletop.
Yet, it’s still not enough. Chinese scientists are upgrading the facility with the goal of hitting 10 petawatts by the end of the year. They’re hoping to build another laser capable of pumping out 100 petawatts by 2023, if the Chinese government approves the roughly 100 million dollar price tag. China might have a compelling reason for paying the bill though: at these powers levels scientists can achieve new and mind-bending things, like plucking electrons from an empty vacuum.
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