space explosion
Extremely powerful lasers are on the horizon. ALMA ESO/NAOJ/NRAO J Bally

Chinese physicists based in Shanghai are to begin construction on a laser so powerful it could rip apart the very fabric of space itself.

The laser - which will be based at a lab known as the Station of Extreme Light (SEL) - is designed to produce laser pulses with 100 million billion watts (100 petawatts, or PW) of power. This is significantly greater than the total power output of humanity in a year, or slightly less than the power our planet receives from the sun at any one moment.

With this kind of power, the physicists will momentarily be able to subject targets to unimaginable extremes of temperature that are more akin to conditions seen inside the cores of stars, or even black holes, than on Earth.

According to one scientist in the group, Li Ruxin, the SEL laser will be able to focus a 100PW laser on a spot measuring just 3 micrometres across – about the size of an average bacterium. The intensity in that tiny space will be roughly 10 trillion trillion times more intense than the sunlight that strikes Earth.

These kinds of experiments will provide physicists and material scientists with unprecedented data on the behaviour of particles and shine new light on the mysterious workings of our universe.

Perhaps most intriguing, the SEL laser may even be capable of tearing apart the very vacuum of space, a feat which would herald a completely new type of physics. Specifically, Li and his team are hoping to demonstrate that light can tear electrons and their antimatter counterparts – known as positrons – from empty space in a phenomenon known as "breaking the vacuum".

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

You may be asking how a laser with more power than humanity's total power output is feasible. But it is important to note that extremely powerful lasers, such as the SEL, only fire for an infinitesimally brief period of time. And because power is defined as energy over time, very little actual energy is being used in each pulse.

The team is breaking records with its existing laser at the Shanghai Ultrafast Laser Facility. In 2016 the scientists achieved an unprecedented 5.3PW and are in the process of upgrading their device so that it is a capable of achieving a 10PW pulse.

The Chinese researchers are not the only ones pursuing the goal of creating extremely powerful lasers. A 30PW device is being proposed by Japanese scientists, while Russian physicists are sketching out plans for a monstrous 180PW laser at the Exawatt Center for Extreme Light Studies.