Japan Fires The World’s Most Powerful Laser

Remember: watt is the unit of power

Researchers at Osaka University are claiming to have fired the most powerful laser in the world. The 2-petawatt (two quadrillion watt) pulse lasted just one picosecond (a trillionth of a second).

For a rough comparison, in 2013, a 50 kilowatt (50,000 watt) laser shot down a drone two kilometers away.

Osaka’s mega-powerful laser is called LFEX, or Laser for Fast Ignition Experiments, and measures more than 300 feet long.

While two petawatts is a formidable amount of power, the idea of a petawatt laser isn’t new. The United States has a few of their own, notably a one-petawatt laser at the University of Texas at Austin.

Michael Donovan, associate director for the Texas Petawatt, says that it’s important to remember when talking about lasers of this size that, while the power output is immense, the energy used is actually very little.

“The energy of the Texas Petawatt, 150 to 200 Joules, is about that in a cup of coffee or a very hard tennis serve,” Donovan said via email. “It is the energy used by a 100 watt light bulb in 2 seconds.” Power is energy over time, and since one picosecond is a very small amount of time, the power output turns out to be immense.

The scientists at Osaka University claim that their pulse (2 petawatts at 1 picosecond) is about 100 times the energy of UT Austin’s laser, and twice its peak power.

“Two petawatts, that’s a lot,” said Julio Soares, senior research scientist at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. What could a laser that powerful be used to do? Based on the kinds of experiments done at the National Ignition Facility, which houses a similar high-powered lasers, Soares jokes: “Well, to blow things up.”

We don’t have any footage from the University of Osaka, which is now working on a 10-petawatt laser, but you can check out the Texas Petawatt laser in this video.

Also, it wouldn’t be a story about a huge laser if we didn’t mention the Death Star blowing up Alderaan. If you want to compare this laser’s output to some other calculations, we’ve rounded up some of the best articles on whether the Death Star really had the juice to blow up a planet.

Updated July 29 to clarify Julio Soares’ comments.