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Extreme Lasers

Scientists and engineers love lasers because they offer the possibility of extreme behavior. This allows scientists to probe nature on very fine scales and to burn holes through solid objects. This article describes some of the most extreme lasers—the biggest, "baddest," shortest, longest, slowest, fastest, and smallest lasers—in existence. These data are from circa 2007, and are not necessarily the record holders, but are important representatives of each category. The numbers in parentheses correspond to references given below, where more information can be found.

Highest-energy laser pulse: 150 thousand joules, in a single 10-nsec pulse. The National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California, achieved this result in 2005. The energy contained in the 150 kJ pulse is equivalent to a 1-ton automobile traveling at about 60 miles per hour. Soon, the NIF aims to achieve a pulse energy of a couple of MJ, or megajoules. All of this energy will slam into a tiny pellet containing deuterium—a form of hydrogen—in an effort to induce nuclear fusion, which may serve as a futuristic source of power, as well as aiding in nuclear-weapons research. [1]

Shortest laser pulse: Just under 1 femtosecond, or 10-15 sec. This sub-fsec pulse was created at the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany, and is less than the time for a single oscillation cycle of a visible light wave. How short is this pulse? The duration of this pulse is to ten seconds as ten seconds is to the age of the Earth! In order to make such a short pulse, researchers have to generate light containing all colors from the visible region well into the ultraviolet region of the spectrum. Such a pulse of light looks white to the eye. This is very different from typical lasers, which emit a single color. [2]

shortest laser pulse
Gas nozzle used to produce attosecond pulses
Courtesy of Max-Planck-Institut für Quantenoptik

Highest instantaneous power: Just over 1 PW or petawatt, that is 1015 W. This was first achieved at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 1996. This unimaginably high power exceeded the entire electrical generating capacity of the U.S. by more than 1,200 times, but was over in such a short time—440 fsec—that it produced "only" 680 J of energy. Because laser light can be focused to a very small spot, the focused energy density reached the equivalent of 30 billion joules in a volume of one cubic centimeter, far larger than the energy density inside of stars. At such high energy densities, the electric field of the light is so strong that electrons become accelerated to almost the speed of light! [3]

Highest average power: More than 1 MW, or megawatt, of continuous output power. This dangerously high level of power was first achieved by the Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL), at the High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. Because the power is so high, it is operated only for seconds at a time, producing several MJ of energy in an outburst. [4]

"Baddest" laser: The U.S. Air Force's airborne laser, a close relative of the MIRACL, described above, is mounted in a modified Boeing 747-400F freighter aircraft. It produces MW-power pulses with duration of seconds and energies of MJ, for shooting down enemy tactical nuclear-weapons ballistic missiles. That is one bad laser. [5]

Longest laser: 1.3 km (0.8 miles). This is the length of the Linac Coherent Light Source, a "free-electron" X-ray laser, which is being built as a component of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. The building is so long, that scientists use golf carts to travel around in it. [6]

Shortest laser: Several millionths of a meter in length. This is the length of the resonator in vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers, or VCSELs. These special semiconductor lasers were invented at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, and are becoming important in telecommunications and other applications. [7]

Longest time of laser-cycle stability: 13 seconds. This is the duration that a laser at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) was able to oscillate with precisely the same frequency. That is, the laser did not gain or lose even one wave cycle over a thirteen second time, during which it oscillated 1,064,721,609,899,145 times. That is one stable laser! Atomic clocks based on stable lasers such as this are used to synchronize the Global Positioning System (GPS), which is available to consumers via satellite. [8]

Most precise length measurement using a laser: About 1 attometer, that is 10-18 m. This length-measuring sensitivity was achieved by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, or LIGO. This unbelievably small length is one hundred billionth of the diameter of an atom, and is measured as the change of distance between two mirrors that are separated by 4 km (2.5 miles)! The purpose of LIGO is to detect the passing of a gravitational wave created by two neutron stars colliding. [9]

(Adapted from The Silicon Web: Physics for the Information Age, by Michael G. Raymer, Copyright by Taylor and Francis, 2009)


[1] National Ignition Facility Project

[2] The first sub-fsec laser pulse was created in 2004 by at the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany. See Physics Today, Oct. 2004, pg.21.

[3] The Amazing Power of the Petawatt, by Michael Perry, in Science and Technology Review, March 2000, pg.4

[4] Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL), by John Pike and Robert Sherman, Federation of American Scientists, Space Policy Project (1998). Online at:

[5] ABL YAL 1A Airborne Laser, AirForceTechnology.com, Copyright 2007, SPG Media Limited, a subsidiary of SPG Media Group PLC.

[6] Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS), Stanford Linear Accelerator Center,
Page Updated: 17 May 2007

[7] Surface-emitting laser—Its birth and generation of new optoelectronics field, by Kenichi Iga, IEEE Journal of Selected Topics in Quantum Electronics 6(6): p.1201 (2000)

[8] Mercury Atomic Clock Keeps Time with Record Accuracy, NIST News Release, http://www.nist.gov/public_affairs/releases/mercury_atomic_clock.htm

[9] LIGO Caltech, MIT Collaboration.

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