The World’s Most Powerful Laser Could Unlock Major Scientific Discoveries

EP-OPAL, a laser reaching an astonishing 25 petawatts of power, has received an $18 million grant for development, capable of propelling new discoveries in physics and revolutionary cancer therapies.

Scientists have received an $18 million grant to develop what may become the world’s most powerful laser, called EP-OPAL.

If constructed as planned, this laser could propel new discoveries in physics, emulate conditions of the early universe, and pave the way for more targeted cancer therapies.

The World’s Most Powerful Laser

EP-OPAL would consist of two separate lasers, each reaching an astonishing 25 petawatts of power.

For perspective, this is over 1000 times greater than the total global energy grid, though only sustained for millionths of a billionth of a second when fired.

UC Irvine physicist Franklin Dollar, part of the recipient team, said that while the power levels seem incredibly high already, just a bit more power could unlock many scientific puzzles that are currently intractable.

The project is funded by the National Science Foundation and would be constructed at the University of Rochester’s laser facility, according to the Laboratory for Laser Energetics website.

This breaks the current record held by the University of Michigan’s ZEUS laser at 3 petawatts.

How Powerful is 25 Petawatts?

One petawatt is equivalent to 1,000,000,000,000,000 watts, and that means that 25 petawatts of power is equivalent to 25,000,000,000,000,000 watts.

To put this into perspective, here are some examples of power consumption:

  • The world’s total energy consumption in 2019 was approximately 170,000 terawatt-hours. This is equivalent to an average power consumption of 19,388,127,853 watts.
  • The largest nuclear power plant in the world, the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, has a maximum output of 8,212,000,000 watts.
  • The largest hydroelectric power plant in the world, the Three Gorges Dam in China, has a maximum output of 22,500,000,000 watts.

Therefore, 25 petawatts of power is an enormous amount, one that is not currently produced by any known power plant or facility.

Pushing the Frontiers of Physics

What could such immense laser power enable? The grant outlines four research areas that would benefit:

  • Particle acceleration to probe quantum states of matter
  • Recreating conditions of the early universe
  • Advancing light source technology
  • Exploring laser-driven nuclear physics

Dollar explained that with OPAL, electrons with energies higher than can be produced even at the current largest particle accelerator facilities will be possible.

He added that the researchers would like to test all aspects of quantum electrodynamics, as some phenomena can only be examined at extremely high electric fields.

Potential Cancer Treatment Applications

In addition to expanding scientific knowledge, the researchers believe EP-OPAL could eventually have medical uses.

The high-energy beams may allow doctors to target tumor sites in cancer patients with greater precision.

This could permit higher radiation doses to destroy cancerous areas while minimizing damage to surrounding healthy tissue.

Dollar stated that laser technology is advancing rapidly, and there is no clear limit to how much further it can be pushed.

Next Steps

The lasers would be constructed atop the Laboratory for Laser Energetics at the University of Rochester.

With the NSF grant now approved, the physics community will watch eagerly as the EP-OPAL project progresses.

If successful, this groundbreaking laser could usher in new breakthroughs in multiple scientific domains and pave the way for as-yet unimagined technologies.

Read more about this NSF Funded Laser Design Project.

Extra: Other Recent Advances in Powerful Lasers

LFEX – Japan’s Leap in Laser Technology

Japan has made significant strides in laser technology with the development of the Laser for Fast Ignition Experiments (LFEX) at Osaka University.

This laser has been boosted to produce a powerful beam that represents a milestone in laser intensity and power​​.

British and Czech Super Laser

In Europe, a collaborative effort between British and Czech scientists has resulted in the creation of an extremely powerful “super laser”.

This invention is seen as a leap forward for scientific capabilities in the region​​.

LCLS-II: A New Era of X-Ray Lasers

The Linac Coherent Light Source II (LCLS-II) has set a new standard for X-ray lasers by producing a beam 10,000 times brighter than its predecessor.

This has been heralded as a significant upgrade in X-ray laser technology and is expected to revolutionize scientific research in this field​​.

Extreme Light Infrastructure-Nuclear Physics (ELI-NP) Project

The ELI-NP project, part of a pan-European initiative, has built the most powerful laser of its kind at Magurele.

This laser system is poised to aid in the discovery of new radioactive isotopes for cancer treatment and the testing of materials for space missions​​.

Thales and ELI-NP’s 10 Petawatt Achievement

In a landmark achievement, the ELI-NP laser system developed by Thales reached a peak power level of 10 petawatts, making it the world’s most powerful laser system to date.

This represents a significant step in the global race to elevate laser power and intensity​​.

Global Competition in Laser Power

The United States pioneered the development of the petawatt laser in 1996 but has since been surpassed by more ambitious projects worldwide.

Europe has developed two 10-petawatt lasers, and China is not far behind with a 5.3-petawatt laser and plans for a 100-petawatt laser​​.

The UK’s Vulcan Laser Upgrade

The UK Science and Technology Facilities Council is set to upgrade its Vulcan laser system with a significant investment, aiming to deliver 20-petawatt pulses.

This upgrade will make it the most powerful laser in the world, marking over 25 years of the Vulcan laser’s operation​​.

UK’s Ambitious Laser Development

Furthering the UK’s commitment to leading the field, new funding has been secured to build what is projected to be the world’s most powerful laser in Oxfordshire.

This project underscores the ambition to push the boundaries of laser technology to unprecedented levels​​.

These developments highlight an intense global competition to develop increasingly powerful lasers for various applications, from scientific research to defense and medical uses.

The advancements in laser technology are not only pushing the envelope in terms of power and intensity but also opening new frontiers in science and technology.