Powerful next generation lasers get us one step closer to creating virtual particles

The Extreme Light Infrastructure is a new project that will build three incredibly powerful new lasers. Capable of creating energy pulses 20 times more powerful than anything before, these new lasers could help us probe the world of weird physics.

The European Commission has approved the plans to build the lasers in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania, with the goal to have them completed by 2015. These lasers will create pulses that reach up to 10 petawatts - or 10 quadrillion watts. That's almost a thousand times humanity's average power consumption in 2004.

Of course, to create such extreme power levels, the pulses will last for incredibly short periods of time. The pulses will last about 1.5 * 10^-14 seconds. By comparison, it takes ten times that long for light to travel across the width of a human hair. That keeps the energy requirements down wile allowing the lasers to reach unheard of power levels.

These lasers, which are a veritable bargain at just $400 million, are planned to just be a stepping stone to the fourth, most impressive laser. It will feature ten beams, each twice as powerful as the lasers currently planned for construction. At power levels of 200 petawatts, we might actually be able to see virtual particles.

These particles are the result of fluctuations in the quantum world, which constantly create matter and antimatter pairs - like electrons and positrons - that immediately annihilate each other, thus not actually adding anything new to the larger environment. A laser that can create a strong enough magnetic field could push these virtual particles apart before they have a chance to recombine, and these new ones might just be powerful enough to get the job done.

Via New Scientist. Image via NIST.