Lasers are useful for many things. They made CDs work (when they were a thing). They also provide hours of entertainment for cats (and their people). But they can also create magnetic conditions similar to the surface of the sun in a lab, according to new research by scientists at Osaka University. And that could help a wide variety of other scientific disciplines, ranging from solar astronomy to fusion.
The experiment used a high-powered laser, known as Gekko XII, at the Institute of Laser Engineering at Osaka University. Originally designed for fusion experiments, this laser is powerful enough to vaporize a piece of plastic when focused on it. Or, more accurately, it’s powerful enough to turn it into plasma.
That’s exactly what the researchers did. They zap a small piece of plastic with Gekko XII sitting on top of a magnet that emitted a weak magnetic field. The laser beam, which lasted only about 500 picoseconds, created a high-energy plasma that distorts an already weak magnetic field across the sample. That combination of a weak magnetic field and plasma created a situation known as a “pure electron outflow.”
UT video about building an artificial magnetosphere.
This phenomenon is thought to play an important role in other much larger astrophysical phenomena, such as solar flares and magnetic storms on the surface of the sun. In these larger-scale cases, the electron dynamics of the region creates what is known as a magnetic reconnection, where the magnetic field of a feature reconnects to the basic magnetic connection of the body from which it originates.
It’s never been done before to recreate these features on a small scale in the lab, but the Osaka researchers think their electron outflow, created by the combination of a magnet and the laser-induced plasma, is the closest we’ll have to are able to study these phenomena on Earth.
Scaling back phenomena at the level of solar physics to a more manageable magnitude is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, but pure electron flow is useful in other areas as well. As mentioned above, Gekko was initially designed to work on inertial confinement fusion, which could help master a better understanding of electron dynamics at the microscopic level.
Another UT video on artificial magnetospheres.
Overall, the experiment represents steps forward in understanding fundamental physics and is applicable to many more macroscale phenomena. It goes to show that lasers, when used correctly, are useful for much more than just convincing your dog to run into a wall.