Documenting the Coming Singularity

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Can you hear it? - The World's Biggest Laser Powers Up

Technology Review - March 26, 2009, by Kevin Bullis

Now complete, the National Ignition Facility could soon create controlled fusion using lasers.

The most energetic laser system in the world, designed to produce nuclear fusion--the same reaction that powers the sun--is up and running. Within two to three years, scientists expect to be creating fusion reactions that release more energy than it takes to produce them. If they're successful, it will be the first time this has been done in a controlled way--in a lab rather than a nuclear bomb, that is--and could eventually lead to fusion power plants.

The National Ignition Facility (NIF), at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), comprises 192 lasers that fire simultaneously at precisely the same point in space: a sphere of fuel two millimeters in diameter. They are designed to deliver 1.8 megajoules of energy in a few billionths of a second. That's enough to compress the fuel to a speck 50 micrometers across and heat it up to three million degrees Celsius. The lasers, which were fired together for the first time last month, have so far produced pulses of 1.1 megajoules.

"Depending on how you count it, it's between 60 and 100 times more energetic than any laser system that's ever been built," says Edward Moses, the principle associate director for NIF and Photon Science at LLNL. Eventually, the fusion reactions produced by each pulse are expected to generate at least 10 times the energy delivered by the lasers, a significant net gain that could be useful for generating power.

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