In a project fifteen years in the making, scientists have created a record-breaking laser that could solve the energy crisis for good. The US National Ignition Facility is now one step closer to generating a controllable nuclear fusion reaction.
The American National Ignition Facility (NIF) has entered the encyclopedias by generating a 500 terawatt shot, simultaneously using 192 beams. In simpler terms, that’s “1,000 times more power than the United States uses at any instant in time, and … about 100 times what any other laser regularly produces today” says the NIF.
Due to the manner in which the multiple beams converge to focus extreme levels of energy and ultimately power on a specific target, some have likened it to the Death Star, the moon-sized station from the Star Wars movies.
And while not as powerful as the fictional space station’s massive death ray, the NIF’s ultraviolet lasers will heat their target to hundreds of millions of degrees, thereby “igniting hydrogen fusion fuel in the laboratory and producing more energy than that supplied to the target.”
This, in the long run, would mean controlled fusion, as opposed to the uncontrolled form found in the hydrogen bomb.
The NIF’s Initial fears about reaching such heights of laser performance centered on the quality of optics available in the 1990s.
The main fear then was that the available material would not endure the intensity of a laser beam. NIF personnel and their partners worked tirelessly to improve the manufacturing methods and significantly lower the incidence of defects. They also developed “in-house procedures to remove and mitigate small amounts of damage resulting from repeated laser firings.”
“It is fully operational, and scientists are taking important steps toward the quest for clean fusion energy,” says NIF Director Edward Moses.
But environmental groups warn that research into fusion will redirect much-needed funding from proven alternative energy technologies such as wind and hydro power.
The NIF is now lobbying for the development of new giant laser facilities in China, France, Japan, Russia and the United Kingdom.
A view of a cryogenically cooled NIF target as “seen” by the laser through the hohlraum’s laser entrance hole. In ignition experiments, the hydrogen in the fuel capsule must be compressed to about 100 times the density of lead.
Seen from above, each of NIF’s two identical laser bays has two clusters of 48 beamlines, one on either side of the utility spine running down the middle of the bay.
NIF’s power conditioning system has more than 160 kilometers of high-voltage cable, which delivers energy to the system’s 7,680 flash lamps.
The interior of the NIF target chamber. The service module carrying technicians can be seen on the left. The target positioner, which holds the target, is on the right.
NIF’s final optics inspection system, when extended into the target chamber from a diagnostic instrument manipulator, can produce images of all 192 beamline final optics assemblies.
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