Due to follow in the footsteps of the Large Hadron Collider, the latest “big science” experiment being proposed by physicists will see the world’s most powerful laser being constructed.
Capable of producing a beam of light so intense that it would be equivalent to the power received by the Earth from the sun focused onto a speck smaller than a tip of a pin, scientists claim it could allow them boil the very fabric of space – the vacuum.
Contrary to popular belief, a vacuum is not devoid of material but in fact fizzles with tiny mysterious particles that pop in and out of existence, but at speeds so fast that no one has been able to prove they exist.
The Extreme Light Infrastructure Ultra-High Field Facility would produce a laser so intense that scientists say it would allow them to reveal these particles for the first time by pulling this vacuum “fabric” apart.
They also believe it could even allow them to prove whether extra-dimensions exist.
“This laser will be 200 times more powerful than the most powerful lasers that currently exist,” said Professor John Collier, a scientific leader for the ELI project and director of the Central Laser Facility at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Didcot, Oxfordshire.”At this kind of intensity we start to get into unexplored territory as it is an area of physics that we have never been before.”The ELI Ultra-High Field laser is due to be complete by the end of the decade and will cost an estimated £1 billion. Although the location for the facility will not be decided until next year, the UK is among several European countries in the running to host it.The European Commission has already this year approved plans to build three other lasers that will form part of the ELI project and will be prototypes for the Ultra-High Field laser.
Due to sited in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania, each laser will coast around £200 million and are scheduled to become operational in 2015.
The Ultra-High Field laser will be made up of 10 beams, each twice as powerful as the prototype lasers, allowing it to produce 200 petawatts of power – more than 100,000 times the power of the world’s combined electricity production – for less than a trillionth of a second.
The huge amounts of energy needed to produce a laser beam of this strength is stored up over time before it is fired to produce large laser beams several feet wide that are then combined and focused down onto a tiny spot, much like sunlight through a magnifying glass.
At the focal point, the intensity of the light will produce conditions that are so extreme they do not exist even in the center of our sun.
It will cause the mysterious particles of matter and antimatter thought to make up a vacuum to be pulled apart, allowing scientists to detect the tiny electrical charges they produce.
These “ghost particles”, as they are known, normally annihilate one another as soon as they appear, but by using the laser to pull them apart, physicists believe they will be able to detect them.
It could help to explain the mystery of why the universe contains far more matter than we have been able to detect by revealing what so called dark matter really is.
Professor Wolfgang Sandner, coordinator of the Laserlab Europe network and president of the German Physics Society, said: “We are taught to think of the vacuum as empty space, but it seems even a true vacuum is filled with pairs of molecules that come into our universe for an extremely short time.
“An extremely powerful laser should be able to pull these particles apart and keep them in existence for longer.
“There are many challenges to be over come before we can do that, but it is mainly a matter of scaling up the technology we have so we can produce the powers needed.”
The Science and Technology Facilities Council, which provides funds for Britain’s involvement in major science facilities including the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva, has marked out the ELI as a key area it wants to focus on.
Scientists at the Centre for Advanced Laser Technology and Applications at Rutherford Appleton Laboratories in Dicot, Oxfordshire, are already developing technology that will be essential for producing such powerful lasers.
The Centre is thought to be one of the prime candidates for where the Ultra-High Field laser could be located, but it faces competition from sites in Russia, France, Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic.
As well as offering new insights in to undiscovered realms of physics, scientists say the ELI lasers will also produce new laser based treatments for cancer and medical diagnostics.
Dr Thomas Heinzl, an associate professor of theoretical physics at Plymouth University, said: “ELI is going to take us into an uncharted regime of physics. There could well be some surprises along the way.”