Laser engineers in Japan claim to have set a new record for firing the world's most powerful laser, with a peak power equal to a thousand times total world energy consumption. It conjures images of a real-life "Death Star" laser, but could actually help unlock the mysteries of the universe.

"We have achieved 2 petawatt peak power at 2 kJ, 1 ps (picosecond)," Junji Kawanaka of the Institute of Laser Engineering at Osaka University tells Gizmag.

A petawatt is equal to a quadrillion watts – total energy consumption worldwide in 2012 was estimated by the International Energy Agency (IEA) to be 155.5 petawatt hours (PWh) – and a picosecond equals just a trillionth of a second. This puts the so-called "LFEX" (Laser for Fast Ignition Experiments) laser in and beyond the same class as other ultra-fast high-powered lasers like those at the Berkeley Lab Laser Accelerator (BELLA) or the Texas Pettawatt Laser.

According to a draft of a paper on LFEX that Kawanaka and his team presented at the Advanced Lasers and Photon Sources conference in Japan in April, the laser system consists of a front end made up of a femtosecond oscillator, double pulse stretchers with diffraction grating pairs and three stages of optical parametric amplification (OPCPA), followed by a main amplifier, a pulse compressor, and focusing optics.

Put a little more simply, the 100-meter (328-ft)-long system involves applying energy to special glass and repeatedly amplifying the power of the resulting beam inside a controlled system, which also includes the means of observation.

Kawanaka tells us that his team plans to upgrade to 10 petawatts in the future, and are working to improve the mirrors to be able to achieve this.

"To avoid optical damage of mirror(s) induced by such a very high laser pulse, developments of larger sized mirrors and/or high-damage threshold mirrors are required," he says.

Ten petawatt lasers are also planned by other institutes in Europe and China, among other places. Such super-powerful lasers could lead to breakthroughs in areas such as fusion research, materials design, nanotechnology and particle physics.

Such technology might also help us understand once and for all if we're living in The Matrix or not.

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