Scientists test world's most powerful laser for fusion experiment

A small-scale fusion experiment is underway in California.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

The world's most powerful laser was fired up in a dry run, marking the first of many experiments that are aimed at achieving nuclear fusion ignition.

What is nuclear fusion ignition, you ask? It's the same process from which the sun and the stars get their power.

Scientists want a powerful laser to use the same force, in their lab.So The National Nuclear Security Administration and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory demonstrated last week that their 192-beam laser system works, by firing 1 megajoule of energy into a cryogenically-layered capsule.

Granted, it's been hard to do a small-scale fusion experiment. The California scientists think their laser will do the trick.

The scientists are planning to conduct a series of tests at LNLL's National Ignition Facility, using a powerful laser beam aimed at a pellet of hydrogen fuel containing hydrogen, deuterium, and tritium.

The hope is to create a tiny star in the $3.5 billion facility, which happens to be the size of three football fields.

"When NIF's lasers fire, more than one million joules of ultraviolet energy are focused into a pencil-eraser-sized gold cylinder that contains a peppercorn-sized plastic capsule filled with the hydrogen fuel," according to an official statement. The idea is to fuse the nucleus of deuterium and tritium together to produce helium molecules.

Fusion is possible, as we know from the hydrogen-bomb explosions. But controlling the reactions in a predictable manner is another matter entirely.

"This is a great moment in the 50-year history of inertial confinement fusion," said Ed Moses, director of the National Ignition Facility, in a statement.

The value of controlled nuclear fusion is that it could provide electricity to run the nation's power grid -- not to mention provide a virtually endless amount of clean energy. It could help test the safety of U.S. nuclear weapons, too.

But critics call Livermore a failure and the reactor nothing but hype.

Still, the initial test run demonstrated that an experimental setup works. Now, of course, the true test will be in the coming months, as more experiments are conducted.

via Wired

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