Particle Physics: New Laser Could Rip Apart Space Vacuum and Convert Light Into Matter

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

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—five million billion watts, according to the journal Science. By the end of 2018, SULF researchers are aiming to pass 10 petawatts. While such a pulse would last for less than one-trillionth of one second, for that infinitesimal moment it would carry more than 1,000 times the power of every electrical grid in the world combined. And most ambitious of all, they're now building a 100-PW laser known as the Station of Extreme Light, known as SEL, which could be powerful enough to tear electrons and positrons (the electrons' mirror-image, antimatter counterparts) from the fabric of space.

It's 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. It could create environments of extreme temperature and pressure—the kind of conditions that rarely exist naturally on Earth—making them valuable for researching astrophysics, according to Forbes.

"That would be very exciting," SEL physicist Ruxin Li told Science. "It would mean you could generate something from nothing."

The SEL team could potentially rip space in a couple of ways. They could use just one laser beam, focusing it on an empty target inside a vacuum-sealed chamber. But if they aim two beams at each other instead, they could indirectly generate more momentum.

The particles of two beams aimed at one another might pass straight through each other, but some physicists believe that it's possible for the photons to instead scatter off of each other when they collide, according to Science. Since we've yet to document such head-on photonic collisions, it's yet to be proven one way or the other. It's possible laser pulses could first tear the electrons from a cloud of helium gas, after which more of the laser's photons bounce around off those freed electrons—ramping themselves up into high-energy gamma rays.

"The predictions go back to the early 1930s," Tom Heinzl, a theoretical physicist at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom, told Science. "It would be good if we could confirm them experimentally."

The SEL researchers aren't the only ones chasing a 100-PW laser. Physicists in both Romania and the Czech Republic are building powerful lasers under Europe's Extreme Light Infrastructure, a project investigating light-matter interactions of brief duration but high intensity. Designs have also been from physicists in Russia, as well as in Japan.

Despite a recent call by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine for the Department of Energy to get the creation of at least one high-powered laser facility on the books, the United States is not currently much of a contender in the race, according to Science. Physicists at the University of Rochester in New York are hoping to construct a 75-PW laser known as the Optical Parametric Amplifier Line, or OPAL.

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