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This month the laser at Magurele, Romania became the most powerful laser in the world, according to various sources.

Related: Is the laser built in Măgurele, România, the most powerful in the world?

Digi24, a Romanian news and television company mentioned:

Laserul Institutului de fizică nucleară de la Măgurele a atins cea mai mare putere din lume, echivalentă cu 10 procente din cea a Soarelui şi încă nu este la capacitatea maximă.

Translated:

The laser of the Nuclear Physics Institution at Magurele reaches the highest power in the world, equivalent with 10 percent of that of the Sun, and it’s not yet at its highest capacity.

Is that true? How did the scientists calculate that the laser is 10% of the power of the Sun?

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    I don't speak Romanian but do they mean 10% of the energy output of the sun, which in one hour exceeds the entire energy consumption of the whole plant for a year, or do they mean 10% as bright as the sun measured at some specific distance from it (e.g. at the surface)? – dont_shog_me_bro Mar 19 at 14:22
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    @dont_shog_me_bro I suspect that the answer to the question you pose in your comment is also the answer to the question "how did scientists calculate...?" (Ionică Bizău: it is too few characters for me to propose as an edit, but calculate should be a bare infinitive, without -d). – phoog Mar 19 at 14:49
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    Do bear in mind that most high-powered lasers "fire" for a very brief period of time, discharging energy that they have stored up over a much longer period of time. – Daniel R Hicks Mar 19 at 16:41
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    This would almost certainly be a better fit for our physics site. – DJClayworth Mar 19 at 16:48
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    @dont_shog_me_bro: 10% of the sun's power output sounds more reasonable when you consider the laser only does so for a few picoseconds or so at a time. – whatsisname Mar 19 at 20:56
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It's possible they are actually talking about the rate of energy given off by the Sun that reaches the Earth. However, they are not talking about the amount of energy released, but rather the rate of energy released.


The "laser at Magurele, Romania" is actually part of the Extreme Light Infrastructure, a pan-European research project, described by Wikipedia as

...a laser facility that aims to host the most intense beamline system worldwide, develop new interdisciplinary research opportunities with light from these lasers and secondary radiation derived from them, and make them available to an international scientific user community.

According to the Wikipedia article, on 13 March 2019, the ELI NP Research Centre, which is the facility located in Magurele, released a communication regarding the results of a demonstration test.

On March 13, 2019, Magurele held the public communication of the ELI-NP high-power laser system test results, which was also a demonstration test, confirming the achievement of the power of 10 [Petawatts].

A Petawatt is the equivalent of 1,000,000,000,000,000 (15 zeroes), or 10^15 Watts, as the prefix Peta describes. Therefore, a 10 Petawatt laser would be a 10x10^15, or 10^16 Watts.


Per this report from Sandia National Laboratories, they calculate the amount of solar power that reaches the earth's surface as 89,300 Terawatts.

A Terawatt is the equivalent of 1,000,000,000,000 (12 zeroes) or 10^12 watts. A Petawatt is equal to 1,000 Terawatts, so you can easily convert between the two by dividing the number of Terawatts by 1,000 to get the number of Petawatts. Therefore, the amount of solar power hitting the Earth in Petawatts is 89.3 Petawatts.


Dividing the output of the ELI-NP laser test by the energy output of the Sun that reaches the surface of the Earth results in

10 Petawatts / 89.3 Petawatts = 11.198%

which is approximately 10%. Note however, that this does not mean that the laser is continuously generating 10% of the sun's energy. Per the Wikipedia article on Watt

[The Watt] is defined as a derived unit of 1 joule per second,1 and is used to quantify the rate of energy transfer.

Further down, the page has a section on the distinction between "Watts" and "Watt-hours".

The terms power and energy are frequently confused. Power is the rate at which energy is generated or consumed and hence is measured in units (e.g. watts) that represent energy per unit time.

For example, when a light bulb with a power rating of 100W is turned on for one hour, the energy used is 100 watt hours (W·h), 0.1 kilowatt hour, or 360 kJ. This same amount of energy would light a 40-watt bulb for 2.5 hours, or a 50-watt bulb for 2 hours.

Power stations are rated using units of power, typically megawatts or gigawatts (for example, the Three Gorges Dam is rated at approximately 22 gigawatts). This reflects the maximum power output it can achieve at any point in time. A power station's annual energy output, however, would be recorded using units of energy (not power), typically gigawatt hours. Major energy production or consumption is often expressed as terawatt hours for a given period; often a calendar year or financial year. One terawatt hour of energy is equal to a sustained power delivery of one terawatt for one hour, or approximately 114 megawatts for a period of one year.

Typically, these kinds of experimental lasers are not constantly on, and fire for an extremely short period of time. Per the article on the National Ignition Facility, a facility with a similar, albeit less powerful laser

NIF aims to create a single 500 terawatt (TW) peak flash of light that reaches the target from numerous directions at the same time, within a few picoseconds.

A 10 Petawatt laser fired for a single picosecond would consume

10^16 Watts * (1 / 10^12) seconds = 10,000 Watt-seconds

10,000 Watt-seconds / 3,600 (seconds/hour) = 2.78 Watt-hours

Compare this number to the energy consumption of the world which was approximately 22 Terawatt-hours in 2017, and the amount of energy consumed by this laser is completely insignificant, accounting for less than a trillionth of the world's energy consumption.

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    Why do you even focus on the energy? It is not mentioned anywhere in the question, or in any of the linked articles. You can remove the second half of the answer and make it clearer. – pipe Mar 19 at 15:50
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    @pipe the second part is in there because of the common mistake of conflating power with energy. Just because the laser is reaching 1/10th of the Sun's power doesn't mean it's dimming lights all over the planet. – DenisS Mar 19 at 16:50
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    DenisS - Nice answer. +1. || Just "for completeness". The rest of your answer shows that you know this but, your statement "... Note however, that this does not mean that the laser is generating 10% of the sun's energy ..." is incorrect. Change to eg "continuously generating" and it is correct. Power is energy per time (as you know). While it is operating, the LASER IS generating 10% of the sun's energy". - Actually, based on another answer, = "10% of the Sun's energy that falls on the outer atmosphere of the earth" - but, again, only during the time that the LASER is lasing. – Russell McMahon Mar 20 at 2:56
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    OTOH, the energy output of the sun is not 89.3PW. 89.3PW is only the energy reaching Earth, which is an infinitesimally tiny fraction of the sun's total energy output. 89.3PW isn't even enough to qualify as a rounding error in the sun's total energy output. – Dave Sherohman Mar 20 at 9:22
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    @DaveSherohman - Correct. The Sun's luminosity is 384.8 yottawatts, or 4.3 billion times the 89.3 petawatts that hit the Earth. – David Hammen Mar 20 at 10:07
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Power of the laser

This video shows interviews with people at the laser center. At 4:54 you can see the director of the center repeat the claim. In this video, that same director states that the laser was measured at 10.88 PW or 1.088×10^16 W. Remember that watts (W) are the unit of power.

The laser does not operate at that power continuously. Just for comparison, that power is 30 million times the generating power of the whole EU. The laser stores up power and releases it in very short bursts. This document was written during the design phase, and said that they would try to make the laser do pulses of 22 fs or 2.2×10^-14 s, which is an incredibly short time. I don't know how long the pulses are in the laser as built, but we can assume they are incredibly short.

Power of the sun

The claim is that the sun's power is only ten times that of the laser. The "power of the sun" is a little vague. There are different ways to think about the sun's power.

The sun sends 3.846×10^26 W into space in all directions. That is 10^10 or 10,000,000,000 times more than the laser. Most of this energy just flies off into space, and does nothing. A minuscule fraction of that incredible power hits the Earth. Roughly 1.73×10^17 W hits the upper atmosphere. Of the power hitting the upper atmosphere, only 71% is absorbed by the Earth, 1.2×10^17 W. This is just 11 times the power of the laser, which is consistent with the claim.

In contrast to the laser, the sun provides that power 24/7, and spreads the energy out over the whole Earth.

Some calculations for context

If we go back to basic physics, power is energy per unit time. A huge amount of power sustained for a very brief amount of time, is a moderate amount of energy. 10.88 PW sustained for 22 fs is 240 J, enough energy to power a CFL lightbulb for 16 seconds; Not much energy on a everyday scale. However, if even a small amount of energy is concentrated into a tiny enough space, it can produce very high concentrations of energy. The laser is remarkable not just for its incredible power, but also because it can concentrate that power into a microscopic space, briefly creating incredible concentrations of energy.

Conclusion The laser produces roughly 10% of the power of the sunlight that is absorbed by the Earth. It produces that much power for a tiny fraction of a second.

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    It produces that much power for a tiny fraction of a second. Mixing up energy and power is the crux of the matter. Power is energy (work) flow. It's like turning on a fire hose for a fraction of a second. – Schwern Mar 19 at 19:47
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    @paul23 Because science reporting is often terrible and it sounds awesome and most laymen have no sense of scale (I cite any given disaster movie as evidence) and we confuse energy with power all the time. – Schwern Mar 19 at 22:32
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    "It produces that much energy for a tiny fraction of a second" - In addition to what @Schwern said, it would be more clear to say "It outputs that much ...". The laser isn't producing power, it's (very rapidly) releasing energy that was produced elsewhere and then stored. – aroth Mar 19 at 23:32
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    @DmitryGrigoryev "Converted from one form of energy into another more usable form," then? – JAB Mar 20 at 18:03
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    This conversation about semantics has gotten a little out of hand. Is it really useful to talk this much about what the word produce means? – BobTheAverage Mar 21 at 15:22

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