Lasers could heat materials to unimaginable temperatures that are hotter than the center of the Sun in only 20 quadrillionths of a second, scientists say.

Theoretical physicists from Imperial College London have suggested the possibility of a heating mechanism capable of heating materials to a scorching ten million degrees in much less than a million millionth of a second. The incredible device could aid in research in thermonuclear fusion energy, in which the ability of the Sun to produce clean energy is replicated.

Lasers are already used to heat material for fusion energy research, but this new method would work 100 times faster. In current methods, the energy from the laser must conduct the slow process of heating up electrons on the object to, in turn, heat up the ions. Scientists discovered a high-intensity laser is focused on certain material it creates an electrostatic shockwave that heats the ions directly, without the need to hit the electrons first.

"It's a completely unexpected result. One of the problems with fusion research has been getting the energy from the laser in the right place at the right time. This method puts energy straight into the ions," said the paper's lead author, Arthur Turrell.

Electrostatic shockwaves tend to push ions away from themselves without heating them up, but sophisticated computer modeling allowed the researchers to determine special combinations of ions that would cause friction as they moved that would heat them up. The method would be most effective in materials containing two ion types, such as plastic.

"The two types of ions act like matches and a box; you need both," explained study co-author Mark Sherlock from the Department of Physics at Imperial. "A bunch of matches will never light on their own -- you need the friction caused by striking them against the box."

If this method is successfully physically demonstrated, it will be the fastest heating rate ever achieved by science for a significant number of particles.

"Faster temperature changes happen when atoms smash together in accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider, but these collisions are between single pairs of particles," Turrell said. "In contrast the proposed technique could be explored at many laser facilities around the world, and would heat material at solid density."

The findings were published in a recent edition of the journal Nature Communications