China Working on Super-Fast Submarines Powered by Lasers

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In China, scientists say they're developing technology that uses lasers to propel submarines nearly as fast as a jet engine.

As the South China Morning Post reports, engineers at the Harbin Engineering University in Heilongjiang province — where, notably, China's first experimental submarine was developed — claim that the country's military is close to achieving this colossal feat.

The idea behind the burgeoning technology is ingenious: lasers generate plasma underwater, which then creates a so-called "detonation wave" to propel a submarine vessel forward. As the SCMP notes, Japanese researchers first proposed this sort of laser propulsion methodology 20 years ago, and in China, scientists have been trying to figure out how to hack it for at least a decade.

Until now, attempts at making laser propulsion happen have been for naught, as scientists found it nearly impossible to generate a force that would push submarines in one specific direction.

But now, the Harbin researchers say they think they've cracked the code. Submarines using this technique would, as the engineers say in a recent paper in China's Acta Optica Sinica journal, be coated in thin optical fibers — each thinner than a strand of human hair, the SCMP notes — that would emit laser power.

The researchers claim that this method would be able to produce up to 70,000 newtons of thrust, which is a bit less than a commercial jet engine, using only two megawatts of laser power.

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Aside from propelling a submarine forward, the directed laser energy would also result in what's known as "supercavitation," which occurs when bubbles coat the surface of an underwater projectile and increase its velocity. Theoretically, this could make a sub travel faster than the speed of sound — and hide it from sonar because, without mechanical power, it doesn't produce any mechanical noise vibrations, either.

News of this theoretical advancement comes after reports from last year indicating that the United States is concerned about losing the so-called submarine arms race to China, which has invested big in researching new underwater weapons technology.

While the concept of laser-propelled submarines sounds a bit "Star Wars"-esque, the weaponization — literally — of such tech is enough to give one pause.

"This method can also be applied to underwater weapons, causing a supercavitation phenomenon, thereby significantly increasing the underwater range of projectiles, underwater missiles, or torpedoes," project leader Ge Yang wrote in the paper, as quoted by the SCMP.

More on China: Report: Thanks to AI, China's Data Centers Will Drink More Water Than All of South Korea by 2030