Two ParisTech institutes – the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Techniques Avancées (ENSTA) and Ecole Polytechnique – are to take part along with the Laboratoire d’Optique Appliquée and CNRS, France’s research agency, in a multimillion euro project to open up a new branch of physics.
The Extreme Light Infrastructure project, funded under Framework Programme 7, aims to construct an ultra powerful laser by the end of 2015. The laser will be capable of delivering a pulse of around 200 petawatts (20 billion megawatts) – a power intensity equivalent to 100,000 times the energy produced by all of the electricity power stations in the world.
With that kind of power, the project aims to realise an ambition physicists have cherished since lasers were first developed in the 1960s: to break down vacuum into elementary particles and antiparticles, and open the way to a new branch of optics, ultra relativistic optics.
The ultra short time span of the new laser’s pulses will, it is hoped, enable extremely fleeting movements and reactions measured in attoseconds (10-18s) or even zeptoseconds (10-21s) to be observed in real time. Such ultra intense laser pulses could also reduce, by a factor of 1,000 to 10,000, the distances required by particle accelerators to produce particle or radiation beams.