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Berkeley Laser Fires Pulses Hundreds of Times More Powerful Than All the World’s Electric Plants Combined

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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BELLA petawatt laser at LBL

BELLA laser. Credit: Roy Kaltschmidt, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Blink and you’ll miss it. Don’t blink, and you’ll still miss it.

Imagine a device capable of delivering more power than all of the world’s electric plants. But this is not a prop for the next James Bond movie. A new laser at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory was put through its paces July 20, delivering pulses with a petawatt of power once per second. A petawatt is 1015 watts, or 1,000,000,000,000,000 watts—about 400 times as much as the combined instantaneous output of all the world’s electric plants.

How is that even possible? Well, the pulses at the Berkeley Lab Laser Accelerator (BELLA) are both exceedingly powerful and exceedingly short. Each petawatt burst lasts just 40 femtoseconds, or 0.00000000000004 second. Since it fires just one brief pulse per second, the laser’s average power is only about 40 watts—the same as an incandescent bulb in a reading lamp.

BELLA’s laser is not the first to pack so much power—a laser at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, just an hour’s drive inland from Berkeley, reached 1.25 petawatts in the 1990s. And the University of Texas at Austin has its own high-power laser, which hit the 1.1-petawatt mark in 2008. But the Berkeley laser is the first to deliver petawatt pulses with such frequency, the lab says. At full power, for comparison, the Texas Petawatt Laser can fire one shot per hour.

Laser wakefield acceleration
Simulated image of laser accelerating electrons in a plasma. Credit: Cameron Geddes, LOASIS Program, at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, NERSC

The Department of Energy plans to use the powerful laser to drive a very compact particle accelerator via a process called laser wakefield acceleration, boosting electrons to high energies for use in colliders or for imaging or medical applications. Electron beams are already in use to produce bright pulses of x-rays for high-speed imaging. An intense laser pulse can ionize the atoms in a gas, separating electrons from protons to produce a plasma. And laser-carved waves in the plasma [blue in image at right] sweep up electrons [green], accelerating them outward at nearly the speed of light.

BELLA director Wim Leemans says that the project’s first experiments will seek to accelerate beams of electrons to energies of 10 billion electron-volts (or 10 GeV) by firing the laser through a plasma-based apparatus about one meter long. The laser apparatus itself is quite a bit larger, filling a good-size room [see top photo]. For comparison, the recently repurposed Stanford Linear Accelerator Center produced electron beams of 50 GeV from an accelerator 3.2 kilometers in length.

About the Author: John Matson is an associate editor at Scientific American focusing on space, physics and mathematics. Follow on Twitter @jmtsn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. wrwing 4:20 pm 08/2/2012

    I think you need to correct this. The laser is actually at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, which is a VERRRRRY different place from Lawrence Berkeley.

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  2. 2. wrwing 4:22 pm 08/2/2012

    My bad – I was reading too fast. It really is a different laser.

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  3. 3. Profitsup 5:15 pm 08/3/2012


    yes and it was called Lawrence RADIATION National Lab for many years -

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  4. 4. quizkid 9:04 pm 08/3/2012

    This technology could replace electrical power plants.

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  5. 5. S. N. Tiwary 8:05 am 08/4/2012

    It is a groundbreaking discovery which can solve the power problem of the world.
    S. N. Tiwary

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  6. 6. oldhopalong 4:17 pm 08/4/2012

    @quizkid & Tiwary, So, if a generator the size of an undefined room is required to generated enough power to illuminate a 40 watt light bulb, in order to light your rooms in your parents’ basements would then require a generating apparatus the size of Connecticut. I bet you boys bought into cold fusion also.

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  7. 7. Quinn the Eskimo 1:40 am 08/5/2012

    “Berkeley Laser Fires Pulses Hundreds of Times More Powerful Than All the World’s Electric Plants Combined”

    Okay, where’d they get the power? They’ve been hoarding, again.

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  8. 8. techjunkie 12:27 am 08/6/2012

    It’s great that people take an interest in science. However if you don’t really understand what the topics meaning and possible applications are then perhaps a few questions would be more helpful instead of stupid statements. You’re making a jackass out of yourself by proving that you don’t have a clue about it’s meaning! Come on you wouldn’t even be reading this unless you are intelligent and you have an interest in the subject.

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  9. 9. Stranger 10:45 am 08/7/2012

    Maybe 2 of these devices could be used for Higgs boson generation?
    If only they could produce colliding electron and positron beams with energy around 60GeV.

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