Firing Up the World’s Largest Most Awesome Laser

6a00d8341bf7f753ef0112797301e828a4.jpg Scientists have test fired a man-made stellar core, the world’s most powerful laser and the awesome conclusion is: All Systems Are GO.

 The hundred and ninety two laser beams of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) fired in concert, signaling a new stage in fusion research: the stage where we actually blow things up in the name of free power from seawater.

The firing of the National Ignition Facility, or NIF, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, located 40 or so miles east of San Francisco, proved that the $3.5 billion machine may in fact about achieve fusion within two years, even if much of the device’s time is earmarked for defense research and prospects of near-limitless and pollution-free energy aren’t certain.

Scientists have test fired a man-made stellar core, the world’s most powerful laser and the awesome conclusion is: All Systems Are GO.  The hundred and ninety two laser beams of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) fired in concert, signaling a new stage in fusion research: the stage where we actually blow things up in the name of free power from seawater.

The firing of the National Ignition Facility, or NIF, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, located 40 or so miles east of San Francisco, proved that the $3.5 billion machine may in fact about achieve fusion within two years, even if much of the device’s time is earmarked for defense research and prospects of near-limitless and pollution-free energy aren’t certain.

When most people think green, they think solar, forgetting that even that solar power has to come from somewhere.  The Sun is a vast fusion reactor, using its immense gravitational pressure to ram small hydrogen nuclei together and convert a tiny sliver of the mass into pure energy.  But since the equation is Energy equals Mass times the Speed of Light squared, an equation you may have heard of, that can be a lot of power.  It turns out that the speed of light squared is ninety quadrillion.

Unlike its uglier nuclear cousin fission, fusion doesn't deal with any toxic or radioactive components.  If you've seen seawater and party balloons, you've seen most of the fusion fuel already.  The problem is that you need stellar core temperatures just to get the fusion party started, and that's where the lasers comes in.

The NIF uses an array of 192 precisely timed lasers to bombard a fusion pellet target with four million joules of energy in only a few thousand-billionths of a second (picoseconds).  This results in a power of half a petawatt, which doesn't sound big to you only because petawatts are so immense you've never had to hear of them before.  Put it this way: New York city's entire electrical consumption runs at about four millionths of a petawatt.

What happens to the target sounds like a scientific essay on "Blowing things absolutely to pieces".  The lasers hit an outer shell, a hohlraum, which re-radiates the energy as ultra-intense x-rays.  These hit the pellet of fusion fuel and blow up the surface.  The force of the pellet's own skin blowing off sends a shockwave into the center, and the combination of X-ray bombardment and pressure will, hopefully, trigger nuclear fusion.  This might sound an awful lot of hassle, and it is, but once you get the reaction started it will release more than enough energy to keep it going – and you can skim off the overspill to do little things like "power the planet."

This test-firing is just the end of the construction phase, but don't worry, they'll be blowing things up soon enough.

Casey Kazan 

Z-machine-jj

Sources:

NIF Status Update https://lasers.llnl.gov/newsroom/project_status/2009/february.php

www.wired.com/wiredscience

Image credit: with thanks to our friends at gizmodo.com

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