A new laser could tear apart the vacuum of space and convert light into matter

Physicists in China are on the verge of “vacuum breaking” – a phenomenon created by lasers of unprecedented power that physically rip particles out of empty space, showing that matter and energy are interchangeable, as Albert Einstein theorized it with his equation E = mc2.

In 2016, China’s Shanghai Superintense Ultrafast Laser Facility, also known as SULF, became the first to create a laser pulse of more than five petawatts, or five million billion watts, according to the newspaper. Science. By the end of 2018, SULF researchers aim to exceed 10 petawatts. While such a pulse would last less than a trillionth of a second, during that infinitesimal moment it would carry more than 1,000 times the power of all the world’s power grids combined. And most ambitious of all, they are now building a 100-PW laser known as the Station of Extreme Light, known as SEL, which could be powerful enough to rip off electrons and positrons (the mirror image of electrons, counterparts of antimatter) of the fabric of space.

It is essentially the reverse of the process by which we convert heat and light into matter to create nuclear weapons – SEL would convert light into matter. That could create extreme temperature and pressure environments — the kind of conditions that rarely occur naturally on Earth — making them valuable for astrophysical research, according to Forbes.

“That would be very exciting,” said SEL physicist Ruxin Li. Science. “That would mean you could generate something out of nothing.”

The SEL team could potentially tear up space in a number of ways. They could use a single laser beam, focusing it on an empty target inside a vacuum-sealed chamber. But if they instead direct two beams towards each other, they could indirectly generate more momentum.

Particles from two beams directed at each other could pass directly through each other, but some physicists believe it’s possible the photons instead scatter when they collide, according to Science. As we have not yet documented such frontal photon collisions, this remains to be proven one way or another. It is possible that laser pulses will first strip electrons from a cloud of helium gas, after which more photons from the laser will bounce off these released electrons, turning into high-energy gamma rays.

“Predictions date back to the early 1930s,” said Tom Heinzl, a theoretical physicist at the University of Plymouth in the UK. Science. “It would be nice if we could confirm them experimentally.”

SEL researchers aren’t the only ones pursuing a 100-PW laser. Physicists from Romania and the Czech Republic are building powerful lasers as part of the European Extreme Light Infrastructure, a project studying short-lived but high-intensity light-matter interactions. Designs have also been made by physicists in Russia, as well as in Japan.

Despite a recent appeal by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to the Department of Energy for the creation of at least one high-powered laser facility, the United States is currently not really in the running. in the race. , according to Science. Physicists at the University of Rochester in New York hope to build a 75-PW laser known as the Optical Parametric Amplifier Line, or OPAL.

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