On the coattails of CERN's success with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), Europeans and the world at large have another grand science project to be excited about: the Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI) project involving 40 research and academic institutions. The project's goal is to build powerful lasers -- two in Romania and the Czech Republic and a third in Hungary. These lasers will progressively serve as prototypes for a fourth more powerful laser -- the Ultra-High Field Laser -- whose location hasn't been decided yet, though the UK is the likely candidate.
The expected date for the first laser facility to become operational is sometime in 2017.
These lasers will be intense enough to perform electron dynamics experiments at very short time scales or venture into relativistic optics, opening up an entirely new field of physics for study. Additionally, the lasers could be combined to generate a super laser that would shoot into space, similar to the combined laser effect of the Death Star in the Star Wars trilogy, though the goal is to study particles in space, not annihilate planets.
The project coordinator for the Romanian site, Nicolae-Victor Zamfir, told Bloomberg that each laser will be 10 times more powerful than any laser currently in existence, such as the one at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Other possible research directions are under consideration, including radiography, cancer therapies, and even accelerating radioisotope decay, but it seems that for now the focus is on getting the facilities built for basic research rather than reaching out just yet for proposals on potential applications.
In terms of the specific lasers to be built, a facility will be constructed in Romania to focus on photonuclear physics, or light-matter interactions. In the Czech Republic, the facility will consist of a laser-plasma accelerator, aimed at producing ultrashort bursts of energetic particles and radiation. Finally, the attosecond facility in Hungary will produce laser burst on the attosecond-scale to study electron dynamics in atoms and molecules.
The experiments proposed for the super laser are pretty theoretical and futuristic with energy ranges where relativistic laws break down. As The Telegraph noted years ago when the project was initially proposed, virtual particles that exist for very short periods of time are believed to float throughout space, as Stephen Hawking predicted decades ago. An ultra intense laser could effectively "boil" particles right out of the fabric of space, causing particles to exist long enough for them to be detected. To do this, it will focus 200 petawatts of power onto a single point for less than a trillionth of a second.
As Wolfgang Sandner, coordinator of the Laserlab Europe network, told Discovery last year, "An extremely powerful laser should be able to pull these [virtual] particles apart and keep them in existence for longer."
These type of propositions sound a bit unnerving, and echo concerns that critics had about the LHC's search for the Higgs Boson and the inadvertent creation of a black hole. However, with the successful (and safe) discovery of the Higgs particle, scientists are optimistic about the kinds of grand scale experiments that can be accomplished with the new laser.
It seems that Europe is the heir apparent of high-end experimental physics research.
It's also noteworthy that the location for the facilities are in Eastern Europe. One of the goals of the project is to encourage academics in these countries to stay and build active research groups rather than leaving for Western European institutions. This would also encourage international researchers to visit these countries, a long-term approach to spur growth to build larger, active science communities. As noted by Bloomberg, considering that Romania only invests only a quarter of its GDP into research compared to other European countries, the country could use the incentives that a top-notch facility could bring. And though scientists in Prague in the Czech Republic have been working on one of the most powerful lasers in Europe for the last decade, another facility could draw even more researchers and funding.
The research planned by ELI will capture the attention of people worldwide, just as the LHC work has. The mysteries that might be uncovered could spark new technologies that are hard to imagine now, but like any grand scale project, it's a bit of a gamble. Fortunately, the project is taking a baby step to success approach by allowing each facility to explore a particular aspect of laser science.
It's good to know before giant laser beams start shooting from the surface of the planet.