So, it is not easy to do what has never been done before. In October of 2010, I wrote about the National Ignition Facility, a joint scientific project run by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore California. The National Ignition Facility aims to recreate the heat and pressure of stars and hydrogen bombs on a microscopic controlled scale. The project is ostensibly designed as a United States defense project to model the nation’s next generation nuclear arsenal without use of (treaty-prohibited) nuclear testing, but cognoscenti have long suspected that it is a way that our country can pursue fundamental energy and physics research despite the apathy (or outright animosity) of a do-nothing congress and politically divided citizenry.
Unfortunately the facility experienced a series of setbacks, and the massive laser array did not deliver the promised energy output. However, this month all that changed! On July 5th the facility briefly powered up its 192 lasers to deliver a 1.85-megajoule blast that released more than 500 trillion watts of power. Although the laser beam was only active for a miniscule fraction of a second, during that brief time it was focusing a thousand times more energy than the rest of the entire United States was actively using. Remember Doc Brown from “Back to the Future” shouting about “1.21 gigawatts!” and desperately running his hands through his hair? Well, a gigawatt is a billion watts. This laser beam produced a 500 terrawatt blast–500 trillion watts. So just imagine Doc shouting “1.21 gigawatts!” four hundred thousand plus times!
The successful test firing brings the NIF within tantalizing reach of their desired ignition breakthrough—the glorious moment when scientists flip a switch and create a controlled, contained fusion reaction. Building such a “star in a jar” is the first step on a road to titanic engineering and energy-creation achievements which could reshape humanity’s place in the universe.