Science | June 2, 2017 9:28 am

‘Black Hole’ Created in a Lab by World’s Most Powerful Laser Beam

Scientists pointed X-ray lasers at an atom and accidentally made a molecular black hole.

In this illustration, an ultra-intense X-ray laser pulse from SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source knocks so many electrons out of a molecule’s iodine atom (right) that the iodine starts pulling in electrons from the rest of the molecule (lower left), like an electromagnetic version of a black hole. Many of the stolen electrons are also knocked out by the laser pulse; then the molecule explodes.
Scientists focused the full intensity of the world’s most powerful X-ray laser on a small molecule and accidentally created a 'molecular black hole.' (DESY/Science Communication Lab)

The world’s strongest laser just made the universe’s smallest black hole—completely by accident.

Researchers were exploring what the full strength of an X-ray laser, the world’s most powerful kind, could do to an atom when the molecule reacted far differently than what they expected. Instead of getting pulverized into oblivion, they created a “molecular black hole.”

The laser-zapped atom’s electrons were stripped away from the inside out and created a vacuum that started sucking in electrons from other atoms surrounding it. The molecule lost 50 electrons in 30 femtoseconds (millionths of a billionth of a second).

Scientists at Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, where the experiment was conducted, described the resulting phenomenon “like a black hole gobbling a spiraling disk of matter” in a press release. It’s the first time the bizarre phenomenon has been seen.

The Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS), used in the experiment, produced an x-ray laser that’s a 100 times more intense than all the sunlight on the Earth’s surface focused onto a thumbnail, Scientific American reports.

Scientists believe the findings, published Wednesday in Naturecould improve image analysis of viruses, bacteria, and other small organisms.