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Europe is on the road to develop new generation of petawatt-scale lasers

Posted August 14, 2013

A small town of Măgurele, Romania, with only 11,000 residents, suddenly become famous globally, at least in the world of physics. In this place a series of new powerful laser light sources and facilities containing those lasers themselves will be built in the nearest future – the development which will surely cause the population boom in this small and previously not so widely known region.

The titanium-sapphire based lasers will feature an output power of 10 petawatts. Such magnitude will be a new laser power record, since the most powerful current facility of this type is capable of producing ‘only’ marginally above 1 petawatt. A total of two lasers will be developed in Romania.

The map with the locations of the planned nodes for ELI nuclear physics research project. Source: European Commission/ELI

The map with the locations of the planned nodes for ELI nuclear physics research project. Source: European Commission/ELI


The main purpose of the new equipment will be the nuclear research. It will be used to split atoms (their nuclei, to be more exact) of heavy elements with aim to produce and detect previously unobserved particles or physical phenomena.

Why such an interesting location has been selected for this experiment of global importance? According to news article in Nature, the previously mentioned town of Măgurele contained a Soviet-era nuclear research reactor, and, therefore, this Romanian region is a home to many capable specialists of nuclear physics who provide a vast potential for developing new scientific projects. With this in mind, the decision to select the country of a former Soviet Bloc seems logical, since the cost of developing the required infrastructure (even from scratch) should significantly offset the cost and time resources required to concentrate necessary number of high-level nuclear physicists.

The cost of the construction of two ultra-powerful lasers is not so small: 356 EUR, or 475 USD, is a current project cost estimate, which has quite a real potential to increase over the years dedicated to development and construction works. All the investments are being handled by central administration institutions of European Union (EU).

And, this is only the beginning. Two additional similar projects are already about to start in Hungary and Czech Republic, and one more project, which is still in the design phase, is planned to be accomplished in roughly the same time frame. All four facilities will from so-called Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI) scientific network for the research of high-energy nuclear physics. ELI will be managed jointly by Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic and Italy.

France and United Kingdom were the other candidates to construct new laser facilities, although the decision regarding the construction location was ruled out in favor of smaller countries. This choice made by European Commission also reflects the ongoing long-term strategy of European Union to steadily increase the economical balance among its member countries. No doubt, petawatt-scale lasers and respective infrastructure will spur the economical growth in entire region spanned by ELI, and, perhaps, in entire Eastern Europe.

The financial deadline for Romania’s laser facility project is 2015, which is a bit of a challenge itself, considering the fact, that the decision to build a 10 petawatt laser center in Romania was adopted back way in 2009. It makes approximately 4 years for various decision-making issues, so two years for construction works is not a vast amount of time: site should be already operational in the same year of 2015, whereas a routine maintenance works at facilities like LHC last for at least half a year. In turn, ELI nodes in Hungary and Czech Republic should go online in 2017.

In any scenario, the ELI research project is most likely to be accomplished successfully. What interesting is it going to bring to the world? Certainly, we may expect similar nuclear fission-based experiments like we have today, only performed using higher energy densities, or, perhaps sometime in the future, at higher particle velocities.

With current plans, each individual ELI node will be dedicated to separate scientific experiments. Romanian petawatt laser light source will be used in an area of nuclear physics, while, for example, its counterpart in Czech Republic will be implemented in particle accelerator(s) used to explore structure of molecules and solid materials. The main purpose of this laser will be generation of X-rays and ultraviolet light using coherent pulses of energy.

Similar objective will be shared by Hungarian ELI facility; however, in this case a super-short laser pulses (lasting less than one-quadrillionth of a second) will be employed instead of a coherent light. According to physicists, such varied principles of operation of different ELI institutions will provide an opportunity to access different outcomes of similar experiments.

Story by Alius Noreika,

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