World’s most powerful laser ignites major scientific scandal

The world’s most powerful laser ever made, installed in Romania as part of a European Union science initiative, has succeeded in producing one of the biggest international scandals in the scientific community, as the two other participating countries involved in the ambitious project – the Czech Republic and Hungary – decided to exclude Romania.

Located in the tiny town of Măgurele, the laser is capable of producing a 10-petawatt beam (that is ten quadrillion watts or 1016 watts). It put Romania in a prominent place on the world map of physics research when it was first fired last March.

Măgurele is in effect the Los Alamos of Romania: It hosts a nuclear research lab, the Institute of Atomic Physics, the National Institute for Physics and Nuclear Engineering and the Faculty of Physics of the University of Bucharest. Between 1957 and 1998, it also had a Soviet VVRS nuclear research reactor, now shut down.

The project, named ELI-NP, is part of the European Union’s Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI) along with its sister sites, ELI-Beamlines in Dolní Břežany, Czech Republic, and ELI-ALPS in Szeged, southern Hungary, all designed for specific tasks: The Romanian one is the high-power component, the Czech one produces high-frequency laser pulses and the Hungarian one features extremely short-burst pulses of one attosecond (10-18 seconds).

The first troubles with the EUR 165 million Măgurele project began back in 2015 due to the complex nature of one of the buildings housing the equipment: It has twelve underground levels and is in essence a solid block of concrete mounted on seismic shock absorbers. For the underground levels to be built, 1,100 wells had to be dug to reduce ground-water levels. The country’s water management authority first declined to approve the drilling but eventually yielded under government pressure.

The second set of problems appeared in 2018 when the contractor, a consortium led by the Italian Institute of Physics, refused to install the laser, claiming the building was not up to specifications. The Italian side launched a court case against the Romanian side, which is currently underway.

Apparently fed up with the delays of their Romanian partners, last July Czechia and Hungary decided to bring their two sites into a new consortium, the European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC), excluding the Măgurele facility.

“Such an action is unjust, nontransparent and does not respect the goal and spirit of the ELI project and the cooperation of the three countries involved in it,” Nicolae Zamfir, director of the Măgurele project, told Romanian press, while the Romanian Academy hinted in a statement that Czechia and Hungary have sided with “obscure spheres of interest which bring grave prejudice to our country and are completely outside the accepted norms and values of the international scientific community.”

Title image: The ELI-NP laser in Măgurele, southern Romania. (source: eli-np.ro)


Author: Dénes Albert